Many Democrats are cautiously welcoming President Joe Biden on the campaign trail, banking on his assets outweighing his unpopularity in the party’s bid to retain control of both chambers of Congress.
A dozen incumbents in tight races told Bloomberg Government they’d embrace the beleaguered leader of their party, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment.
Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), who was with Biden when he visited her swing district in April, said she’d welcome him back to her district and encourage him to meet with potential voters as much as possible.
“Joe Biden needs to be on the ground talking to folks, because when he is, they love him,” Axne said in an interview in Washington. “I hope he gets out because America needs to see the real Joe Biden, not the one that’s stuck here all the time.”
The president’s popularity is a key metric ahead of any midterm election, which are often a reflection of voters’ attitudes toward the party in power in the White House. That’s why Biden appears to be a potential drag in November — his job approval rating has trended downward over the past few months and was below 38% in the Real Clear Politics average as of Wednesday.
But the president can bring several advantages in a bleak midterm election environment when Democrats are looking for any edge, including boosting fundraising and drawing attention to down-ballot candidates when he swoops into town with a media entourage. Furthermore, the conventional wisdom that it’s best for candidates to distance themselves from an unpopular leader may no longer be as applicable in a highly partisan era when there are fewer persuadable voters.
“The days of putting distance between yourself and a presidential candidate are over,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2012 and 2014 cycles.
Israel said endangered incumbents can still tap into the president’s ability to raise money and motivate the base, even if they don’t want to appear alongside him.
“You don’t have to have a tarmac press conference with the president,” he said. “But use them strategically.”
Biden’s Bully Pulpit
Some lawmakers have already leveraged Biden’s bully pulpit as they look to secure new terms, with a host of Democratic congressional candidates in competitive races appearing alongside the president.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (N.J.), one of the most vulnerable House Democrats, said he has “no issues” welcoming Biden to campaign with him again. Malinowski, who appeared with Biden in September and October, is running in a district redrawn as more competitive.
Across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D) was scheduled to appear with Biden before the president’s Covid-19 diagnosis last week scuttled plans to visit the northeastern corner of the state. Biden left his Covid-induced isolation Wednesday as his symptoms abate.
“I suppose if I were an unknown kind of generic Democratic candidate, it might be a trepidation,” said Cartwright, who won his district even as Biden lost it in 2020. “But people know me at home.”
As he seeks an open Senate seat, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) joined Biden for one January visit to Pittsburgh after a bridge collapsed. The joint appearance, with Fetterman dressed in a hoodie and shorts in the dead of winter, attracted national attention. Fetterman later visited the White House for the Easter Egg Roll.
All three Democrats in New Hampshire’s federal delegation up for re-election — Sen. Maggie Hassan and Reps. Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster — appeared twice with Biden since November to promote the bipartisan infrastructure investments measure (Public Law 117-58).
Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), representing a district neighboring Cartwright’s, was more circumspect when asked if she’d campaign with Biden.
“He’s doing a good job with a very, very tough set of circumstances,” Wild said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who lost a Senate race in 2020 in a Republican-leaning state, questioned the value of a visit by an unpopular president. A presidential visit, especially when the national party brand is portrayed as ineffective on kitchen-table issues, can help motivate the base but does little to help campaigns appeal to critical blocs of independents, he said.
“They don’t want to hear from folks from out of state or the top of the ticket,” Bullock said in an interview. “They want to hear from the person that’s trying to represent them.”
Candidates have taken different approaches to the president even when they live in the same state.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who’s seeking an open Senate seat, skipped appearances with Biden when he was in the Buckeye State.
But when Biden flew to Cleveland in February and again in July, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) greeted and embraced Biden on the tarmac and then spoke at events with him. Kaptur is seeking re-election in a redrawn district that’s less favorable to Democrats.
Other Democrats said they’d welcome Biden but then quickly pivot to other issues such as the need to address their constituents’ concerns.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said there’s “a range of views” on Biden in her central Michigan swing district. When the president visited Lansing in October, Slotkin said they drove past supporters as well as protesters.
“If the president of the United States wants to come to your district, that’s the president of the United States, and I have respect for the office no matter who’s in it,” Slotkin said.
Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), who also appeared with Biden when he visited a technical college in her district in November to celebrate the infrastructure law, said she was “happy to” call attention to administration policies she supported, but also to “call it out when I see it different from them.”
Some senators, who have to appeal to a more politically diverse constituency and have a larger stage to enhance their reputations outside the party, have kept a greater distance than House members. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) said he has “no plans at this point” to campaign with Biden in a state the president barely won in 2020.
In Nevada, where Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto along with Democratic Reps. Steven Horsford, Susie Lee, and Dina Titus all face competitive re-elections, Biden’s visits have been limited in recent months to non-political events. All four attended the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s funeral in Las Vegas at which Biden delivered the eulogy.
Months after Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) traveled on Air Force One in January with Biden and attended his Atlanta speech on voting rights, the freshman senator hedged when asked if he would invite Biden to campaign with him in the fall.
“I’m not focused on who I’m campaigning with,” Warnock said in a brief interview. “I’m focused on who I’m campaigning for.”
Courtney Rozen in Washington, David Hood in Washington and Mia McCarthy also contributed to this story.