Why Democrats are campaigning on your student loan debt

Student loan debt is a big issue, and Democrats are increasingly talking about it in an effort to get voters to the polls in key states this November.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, speaks to reporters in Washington Tuesday. He said the issue of student loans has been 'so potent, and surprised me.'

There’s a trillion-dollar problem facing 37 million Americans – and Democrats are trying to leverage it at the ballot box. In congressional races across the country, Democrats hope promises of student loan relief will win voters and help them weather difficult prospects in November’s elections.

Student loan debt is a big issue with big reach. In fact, 37 million Americans currently face a record $1.2 trillion student debt load. And nearly 7 million borrowers are in default on $100 billion in loans, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Faced with sinking approval ratings for the president and a difficult political climate, Democrats are increasingly latching onto student loans, hoping the issue will motivate voters. What’s at stake for Democrats? Control of the Senate, for one – a handful of competitive races will determine which party controls the chamber. And though the House appears safely in Republican hands, Democrats are trying to minimize losses.

Democrats believe student debt is a particularly poignant issue for voters in many of the districts and states they’re targeting this cycle.

“Show me a suburban district, and I’ll show you a district where that’s going to be a motivating issue,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D) of New York at a  Monitor Breakfast Tuesday. Representative Israel is chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the group that works to elect Democrats to the House.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, who introduced legislation in June allowing borrowers to refinance their student loans at a lower rate, has joined Democrats in closely watched races to champion student loan relief in recent weeks.

Senator Warren campaigned in June with Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky. "That's what this race is all about. It's about a man who stood up and filibustered the student loan bill," Warren said during her appearance with Ms. Grimes.

Warren also trumpeted the student loan issue during a swing through West Virginia in June, campaigning alongside Democrat Natalie Tennant. Ms. Tennant is running against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) to fill the open seat of retiring Sen. John Rockefeller IV (D).

In Arkansas’s competitive Senate race, the National Education Association and Patriot Majority USA, a group that supports Democratic candidates, have run TV ads attacking Republican Rep. Tom Cotton for past votes on student loan interest rates.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire is running an ad in support of student loan refinancing.

“This issue is just so potent, and surprised me,” Israel said. “I shouldn’t be surprised, because I’m paying the student loans of my younger daughter right now.”

Warren's bill would impact 25 million borrowers, with a $58 billion cost over 10 years, to be paid for with a tax on high-income individuals.

Republicans have called foul on Democrats’ student loan rhetoric, saying past Democratic efforts to lower interest rates were “political stunts” that came with tax hikes. Republicans blocked Warren’s bill and criticized Democrats’ motivations.

"The Senate Democrats' bill isn't really about students at all. It's really all about Senate Democrats," Senator McConnell told the Associated Press after Republicans filibustered Warren’s bill. "They want an issue to campaign on to save their own hides this November."

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