As President Joe Biden headed West this week, Air Force One flew over a string of states where marquee Senate and House races will determine which party controls Congress next year.
It didn’t land in any of them.
The President’s rare, four-day visit is unfolding with a careful measure of policy and politics, including multiple stops in Colorado, California and Oregon. But he bypassed some of the most critical Western terrain for Democrats in November: Nevada and Arizona.
In both states, contests for governor and Senate, along with a handful of House races, could well tip the political dynamic for the second half of Biden’s first term – and determine which party controls the levers of government in two key presidential battlegrounds for 2024.
The calibrated approach reflects an election year reality: Biden remains an unpopular leader for Democrats, even as many of his policies – like infrastructure investments and new climate and health care legislation – prove broadly popular. Instead of stumping alongside some of this year’s most vulnerable candidates, Biden is using events in Democratic strongholds to highlight his achievements, make the case for his party and raise millions of dollars from donors.
“President Biden knows where he’s wanted and where he’s not wanted,” a top Democratic official who works closely with the White House told CNN. “This isn’t his first midterm campaign.”
The President – who regularly talks to Democratic candidates and carefully tracks races for House, Senate and governor – has told advisers that he believes his best contribution to the midterm election campaign is using his megaphone to draw a sharp contrast with rivals whom he frequently derides as extreme “MAGA Republicans.”
Since the start of September, Biden has appeared with a smattering of Democratic candidates, including during a Labor Day swing through Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and last week in upstate New York. But he’s held only a handful of large rallies and has twice been forced to postpone plans for a major political event in Florida – once because he contracted Covid and again for Hurricane Ian – but he is set to return before Election Day, party aides said.
Candidates often seem more eager to appear with Biden when he is making an official appearance, like he did in Colorado on Wednesday with Sen. Michael Bennet – a loud advocate for designating Camp Hale, a high-altitude former training ground for the revered 10th Mountain Division, a national monument.
“He came to the White House, and he said, ‘I told you what I need,’” Biden said during the event after bringing Bennet on stage. “And I said I’ll do it. You know why? I was worried he’d never leave the damn White House.”
In his bid for reelection, Bennet is encountering a far more competitive contest than he once imagined, facing Republican newcomer Joe O’Dea, who owns a Denver construction company and his making his first run for office. But Biden won Colorado by 13 percentage points, which makes it a far more hospitable environment for a presidential visit.
Avoiding nationalizing critical races
It’s a much different story in neighboring Arizona or Nevada, where Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly and Catherine Cortez Masto are locked in two of the most difficult races of the year – in part because Republicans are seeking to link them to Biden and his administration’s policies.
At a debate last week, Kelly pushed back on the hot-button topic of immigration and sought to separate himself from his party and the White House.
“I’ve stood up to Democrats when they’re wrong on this issue – including the President,” Kelly said. “When the President decided he was going to do something dumb on this and change the rules that would create a bigger crisis, I told him he was wrong.”
The White House is working closely with the Senate and House campaign committees and will send the President where he could be helpful, aides said, and will avoid traveling to areas where nationalizing the race would be seen as a detriment to candidates. The logistics of presidential travel also complicate some travel, aides said, because campaigns must help foot the expensive costs of Air Force One.
He has been deployed multiple times per week to raise money with donors: In ritzy New York or Boston apartments, Los Angeles backyards and even during virtual events. Biden was expected to appear alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday evening for an event in Los Angeles, raising millions of dollars for House Democrats.
He is set to headline a fundraiser October 20 in Philadelphia for John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate nominee, and is also scheduled to stop earlier in the day in western Pennsylvania. The commonwealth is not only the home of Biden’s birth, but also the site of one of the most competitive Senate contests in the country and has drawn frequent visits from Biden.
It’s not uncommon for sitting presidents to be more of a draw for donors than voters. In the lead-up to the 2014 midterms, then-President Barack Obama attended fundraisers multiple days a week, but wasn’t a frequent presence with Democratic candidates on the campaign trail.
A pragmatic view of the campaign trail
For Biden, this election marks the 50th anniversary of winning his first Senate race in Delaware. Since 1972, he has had a front-row seat to the highs and lows of Election Day, which history shows is almost always unkind to the President’s party.
Biden has always been pragmatic about his campaign trail draw: “I’ll come campaign for you or against you, whichever will help the most,” he occasionally says in his speeches, a mantra he’s employed for decades.
Coming out of the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Biden’s aides said the President was eager to begin a more intensive travel schedule, including to tout his accomplishments and boost Democrats. After a winning streak over the summer, which included passage of key Democratic priorities in Congress and a decline in gas prices, Biden was particularly keen on speaking with Americans about what he’d achieved.
Views of the President have slowly inched upward from a summertime slump, with 44% of American adults now approving of his of performance, according to the latest CNN poll, which is up from 38% in June and July polling.
His ratings have climbed 9 percentage points among Democrats and 8 points among independents since that previous poll, with the President’s image also seeing a 17-point improvement among Black Americans and an 11-point increase among adults younger than 45.
The White House is taking a measure of solace in those findings, advisers say, even as concern over inflation and the broader economy remain a significant challenge for the President.
The President’s aides are also closely monitoring an uptick in gas prices, spurred partly by certain refineries going offline for maintenance. For some of Biden’s senior team, no metric is more important ahead of November.
Despite the uptick in Biden’s approval, the latest CNN poll found that 47% of voters say Biden will not be a factor in their midterm election vote. But among those who say they are sending a message through their November vote, 28% say it’s a vote in opposition to Biden, with only 23% saying it’s a vote to support his policies.
A late push ahead of November 8
In the final stretch of the midterm election campaign, the President is scheduled to be on the road several days a week, aides said, promoting the bipartisan infrastructure law, the Inflation Reduction Act and other achievements of the administration. Advisers say his schedule includes ribbon-cutting ceremonies and groundbreaking events – all of which are designed to generate local news coverage.
In some cases, Biden has appeared in states that neighbor critical battlegrounds, allowing him to promote his agenda without directly inserting himself into individual races. In September, Biden promoted the infrastructure law and his cancer moonshot initiative in Boston, where local coverage crossed the border into New Hampshire.
And last week, Biden promoted manufacturing investments at a Volvo facility in Hagerstown, Maryland, just across the state line from Pennsylvania.
“We’ve been very clear that the President is going to go out, the vice president is going to go out, the Cabinet Secretaries. And you’ll see Democrats in Congress – they’re going to talk about the success that we have seen in this administration the last 19 months,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week.
“I don’t have any specific locations to share in the next four weeks,” she went on. “But, of course, the President loves being out there. And you will see – you’ll continue to see the President traveling.”
In addition to travel, the White House is making plans for the President to conduct more television interviews in the coming weeks, hoping to amplify his achievements. He is expected to do more interviews in the two months leading up to the midterm elections than during his entire time in office, aides said.
As he arrived in California on Wednesday night, Biden extended a long hug to Rep. Karen Bass, the Democratic nominee for Los Angeles mayor, who was once on his short list to be his running mate. And she hugged him back, a sign that being in Biden’s embrace is seen as good politics in her race.
The President will close out his Western swing with a visit to Oregon, which Biden carried by 17 percentage points just two years ago. But now, Democrats are deeply concerned about a remarkably competitive three-way contest for governor, along with two congressional seats that are in danger of slipping into Republican hands.
He is set to appear with Tina Kotek, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, and other local officials.
With a voter registration deadline looming October 18, the President’s stops in Portland are designed to excite Democrats and motivate independents as he lays out the stakes of potential Republican control of Congress and governor, which can help determine implementation of key parts of his agenda.
With only 25 days remaining until the November 8 election, aides said they are already planning for a low-key election night at the White House. The outcome will not only help set the course for the final two years of his first term, advisers said, but also help inform his thinking about the biggest political decision of all: whether he intends to seek reelection.