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Democrats say they’ll campaign with Biden – if he’s pitching tangible results for their states

In World
February 23, 2024

Democrats in tight races across the country are already dreading and carefully wording their answers to the question of whether they’d campaign alongside President Joe Biden.

In CNN’s conversations with two dozen candidates and campaign strategists, the level of enthusiasm was mixed. But even with the president at about 40% job approval in his best polls, the answer for most of them is yes – as long as he’s coming to talk about money flowing to their districts and not hoping to get them to put on Biden campaign buttons.

That’s a distinction that even Democrats in relatively safe seats are making, saying they’re happy to welcome Biden in the right circumstances.

“Is he bringing CHIPs Act money that we deserve and need in Arizona? Is he bringing money for our infrastructure, including almost $100 million for I-10 expansion?” said Arizona Rep. Greg Stanton, a Democrat who represents a fairly blue district. “If it’s on an issue that I believe in, that I’ve worked on, then yes, of course I would appear with the president.”

Biden advisers hope the administration’s legislative accomplishments – like the bridges, broadband, battery plants and pipe replacements funded by the infrastructure and CHIPs bills, or announcements around cutting student loan debt – will be a source of latent strength as the year goes on: the president may not be popular, but so much of what he has done is that even Republicans have tried to grab some of the credit despite their multiple votes against it.

Still, with the tight balance of power in Congress, not all Democratic candidates are eager to be seen with Biden. Some gave ambiguous answers when asked if they wanted the president on the ground with them. An aide to Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Biden friend for decades who is facing his toughest reelection yet in a top presidential swing state, pointed to several comments he’s made about being ready to campaign with Biden and appearances he’s made, but declined to say anything more. One candidate in a tough race went with a more direct, not for attribution, “Hell. No.”

Many Democratic campaigns, including the president’s own reelection team, closely watched as Tom Suozzi won the special election for an open New York House seat last week by connecting himself to much of Biden’s record but taking some shots at him –and saying he didn’t want Biden campaigning for him. That was a convenient line for a conundrum Suozzi didn’t actually face since the only campaigning Biden is likely to do in New York will be at fundraisers and TV studios.

But Democrats running in key presidential states where Biden will be campaigning for himself – most prominently Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina – won’t have the same luxury as Suozzi.

‘They’re welcome’

Behind the scenes, many Democratic operatives range from panicking that Biden is taking them down with him, to making jokes about scheduling conflicts that will just happen to pop up every time the president comes to town.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, was more interested in talking up Biden accomplishments than committing to any campaigning with him. The Washington state Democrat said she hasn’t asked all of the competitive candidates about Biden. She said she’d leave it up to them to decide if he’d help or hurt.

“We have tons of different districts,” DelBene said. “It’s going to be different in different districts.”

Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford, whose district Biden won by 8 points in 2020 and is a GOP target this year, said he is looking forward to more appearances with the president. He pointed to events he has already joined with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and a regular flow of Cabinet secretaries who have been spending time on government business in the crucial 2024 state.

“Having the president, the vice president, the heads of agencies that are bringing the benefits of health care, of investments on energy, on all the small businesses. Those are good things, because I’m bringing the resources to my constituents and making sure they know how best to connect to them,” Horsford said. “Any time officials, including the president, can come to speak to that, they’re welcome.”

Times have changed from past election cycles where Democrats tried to run from their standard bearers. Voters have gotten too savvy for that, strategists say, and too tribal – and base voters will punish them from attempts to distance.

“I’ve been riding with Biden from the very beginning, and I couldn’t deny it if I wanted to. But I don’t, because he’s popular in my district,” said Rep. Dina Titus, another GOP target who represents Las Vegas and campaigned with Biden on his latest swing to Nevada earlier this month.

“We had the highest unemployment in the country, and now we’re the fastest recovering state in the country,” Titus said, pointing to infrastructure, protecting Social Security, and job creation along the strip. “So when you talk specifics and he talks about what we’ve accomplished, that really makes a difference.”

Suozzi said no to Biden, others might not be able to

Suozzi’s victory last week put a Long Island district that Biden had carried back in Democratic hands after Republican George Santos won the district in 2022 but then was expelled by the House last year.

Biden aides argue that Suozzi’s distancing from the president was never going to stick with voters, who were bombarded with Republican-funded commercials highlighting how often he had voted with the president during his previous time in Congress.

“To say Biden was not a factor in this race is to ignore $2 million in advertising,” said a Biden campaign aide.

That spending underscores the reality of campaigning in such a heavily nationalized political environment, where candidates are often tied to the top of their tickets regardless of how much they disavow their parties’ leaders.

Biden aides and other Democratic strategists also insist that decisions may change as individual races take shape, and if, as they hope, Biden’s poll numbers tick up once the general election gets underway. Top Democratic operatives working on House and Senate campaigns tell CNN they have been regularly in touch with both the Biden campaign and with Jen O’Malley Dillon, his 2020 campaign manager and White House deputy chief of staff, who is transitioning to a strategic role in the 2024 campaign.

But in North Carolina, a state Trump narrowly won in 2020 that the Biden campaign is trying to win this year, not everyone is rolling out a welcome.

First-term Democratic Rep. Don Davis, a GOP target whose district Biden has already visited and may again as he tries to put the state in play, gave meandering answers to several questions about campaigning with Biden.

“When he was there, when I’m here, I’m advocating for the people in my district, whether I agree with the president or not,” Davis said in one. “What I am saying is, I am going to advocate with any and everybody that has any way of helping people in a gigantically distressed area in North Carolina. I’m just saying, whoever the president is, I’m going to, I’m going to fight for my constituents.”

A spokesperson for North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, the most prominent Democratic candidate in one of two truly competitive governor’s races this fall, was clearer: “The attorney general supports President Biden’s reelection and will campaign with him in North Carolina,” said Kate Frauenfelder.

Senate candidates stick by Biden too

Other candidates’ spokespeople are crafting careful statements about the prospects of appearing with Biden – even if those words don’t always match how negatively their candidates may feel about the president.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who’s running for Michigan’s open Senate seat, has been telling colleagues privately she is worried Biden might sink her chances in a state Democrats need to hold if they’re to have any realistic prospect of retaining the majority. But asked if the congresswoman would appear with the president when he returns to the state, Slotkin campaign spokesperson Austin Cook said, “Of course she will,” describing the “stark choice” between the president and Trump, and adding, “Elissa is eager to help make that contrast crystal clear.”

In Arizona, another state Biden will be looking to win again, a spokesperson for Rep. Ruben Gallego – the Democrat running for now-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s seat – pointed out that he appeared with Biden on the president’s trip to the state in August to talk about combatting climate change. “And we’re sure we will do so again over the course of the campaign.”

Andrew Mamo, a spokesperson for Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin – who’s running for reelection in a must-hold seat for Democrats at the Senate and presidential level – said Biden “continues to demonstrate he’s focused on delivering good paying jobs for Wisconsin workers, fighting for lower prices for Wisconsin families, and protecting all of our most fundamental rights and freedom,” adding, “Our campaign looks forward to working alongside the President and Democrats up and down the ticket this year.”

A spokesperson for Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen pointed to comments in the fall saying she would campaign with the president, and her appearance with him on stage at a rally earlier this month as proof she’s followed through.

Biden isn’t going to be campaigning anytime soon in Montana or Ohio, where Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Sherrod Brown are trying to hang onto their seats in states that Trump won comfortably in 2016 and 2020. The only campaign events that might take Biden to Texas, where Rep. Colin Allred is trying to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, would be to fundraise – and if the president does go, the Democratic congressman from Dallas made clear he will not be stopping by to sample the canapés.

“We’re picking a senator who’s going to outlast the term of the next president,” was Allred’s answer when asked about campaigning with Biden.

Eager to run against Trump

The former president likely to be on the ballot in November is an easier topic for Democrats to discuss. They’re raring to talk about Trump, and to tie Republicans to him in every way they can – including around the looming potential government shutdown, because, DelBene said, that is a conversation about “the dysfunction, the chaos and it highlights the contrast of what’s at stake.”

Bad as Biden’s numbers are, Democrats are banking on the choice between him and Trump being one of deeply unpopular versus toxic.

Rep. Greg Landsman, a first-term Ohio congressman defending a competitive seat, said he believes that there’s a clear argument to voters that “one side doesn’t want to govern and is completely beholden to Donald Trump.”

He said Republicans in Congress doing Trump’s bidding to kill the border bill that a bipartisan group had taken months to negotiate was an example that infuriated him, and he believes is infuriating many voters in his district too.

“They turned their back on our democracy and our public safety and our security and how we approach a really complicated crisis for the same reason they turned their back on democracy on January 6: Donald Trump told them to,” Landsman said.

Landsman said he was glad to be with Biden – and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell – last January for the groundbreaking on a new bridge made possible by the bipartisan infrastructure act, but he doesn’t expect Biden back anytime soon in a state that has rapidly slipped away from Democrats in the last decade.

Meanwhile, some Democrats who have already had Biden visit are eager for him to return.

“At the core of it, once you get past the political mumbo jumbo, people want someone who is fixing and has fixed their problems,” said Rep. Pat Ryan, adding that he would “definitely” want to campaign with Biden again if the president wanted to come back to New York.

Ryan suggested that candidates deciding how to handle the president look to what happened in 2022, after Biden came to the district ahead of his special election win, while Democrats in other House districts in the state were keeping their distance then.

“I don’t think it’s coincidental that I’m the only frontliner who won in New York,” Ryan said, using the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s term for incumbents in competitive races.

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