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As Biden turns toward midterms, he may not be the top surrogate

Then-President-elect Joe Biden campaigns for Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael G. Warnock at a drive-in rally outside Atlanta in 2021.  (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
By Matt Viser Washington Post

Joe Biden on Thursday will effectively launch his midterm campaign efforts, attempting to capitalize on one of the best stretches of his presidency and beginning the hard task of persuading voters to keep Democrats in control of the House and the Senate.

But he has also been in an uncomfortable position, as an anchor for many in his party – and for Biden, who for decades has prided himself on being one of the most sought-after Democratic surrogates, it’s also an unfamiliar one.

He’s being attacked more often in televised ads than Obama was at this point in 2010, or Trump was in 2018. He goes largely unnamed on Democratic campaign websites and Twitter accounts. And candidates in key races in battleground states are either not asking him to come – or actively avoiding him when he does, according to a Washington Post survey of more than 60 candidates in the most competitive gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and congressional campaigns in the country.

Few candidates said they wanted Biden to campaign for them in their state or district, with many not responding to the question at all. The Post also asked if candidates wanted Vice President Kamala Harris as a surrogate campaigner for the Biden administration and got the same set of unenthusiastic responses.

“No comment from the campaign at this time,” said a spokeswoman for Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who is a Republican target in a state that Biden won by more than 13 points.

“We have not asked President Biden or VP Harris to campaign in Ohio and have no plans to do so,” said a spokeswoman for Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who is the Democratic nominee in a tight U.S. Senate race. Pointing to a range of surrogates for Republican nominee J.D. Vance, the spokeswoman, Izzi Levy, added, “Tim has been very clear that he wants to be the face of this campaign, and that’s not changing anytime soon.”

Several Democratic candidates didn’t say they were opposed to Biden appearing with them in their states. But they weren’t warmly embracing the idea, either.

“Well, I mean, I welcome anybody to come to Arizona and let me, you know, show them around the state and, you know, the issues that we’re facing,” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) said when asked if he wanted Biden to campaign with him. “So, yeah, I mean, it doesn’t, doesn’t matter who it is.”

White House officials are preparing to use the coming weeks to showcase some of Biden’s recent accomplishments, which include a sweeping law that lowers prescription drug prices, addresses climate change and reduces the deficit.

They point to a message Biden took on special interests to solve problems Democrats have sought to address for decades, and they have plans for Biden to travel the country to tout his victories, sell a Democratic agenda and warn about what Republicans would do if voters give them control. They believe Biden, who they view as the quarterback of the party’s policies and its political future, will be a sought-after commodity.

“A lot of these things, Democrats have been trying to accomplish them for a long time,” said Cedric Richmond, a senior official at the Democratic National Committee and former senior White House adviser. “Who wouldn’t want the person who was finally able to do that to come and campaign for them? If they are reluctant, I think it’s political malpractice. If you don’t want Biden, it’s malpractice.”

Richmond said he expects Biden to frequent the campaign trail, and he brushed aside any notion that candidates might want to distance themselves from the president.

“If we had a dollar for every time someone underestimated or counted Joe Biden out, we could pay off the national debt,” he said. “You’ll see his numbers go up, you’ll see accomplishments happen. That’s what voters want to see – and if I’m a candidate, I’d tie myself to that.”

A Biden adviser pointed to several appearances the president has made this year with candidates in competitive races, including Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va.; Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. Rep. Matthew Cartwright, D-Pa., was planning to appear with Biden on a Pennsylvania trip that was canceled because of Biden’s covid diagnosis.

But if there is a widespread shift toward embracing Biden, a president with more swagger and more momentum than he had a few weeks ago, it isn’t noticeable yet.

Campaigns hope that he sets the national tone, touting the accomplishments they are proud of and running on in their races, and that he provides fundraising help, according to interviews with aides in several campaigns. But with many owning approval ratings that far exceed Biden’s, candidates do not necessarily need Biden’s help.

“If he wants to come to Wisconsin, please, come on down,” Mandela Barnes, the Democratic nominee in a close U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin, said when asked recently if he wanted Biden to campaign with him. “We’re here to talk about a vision, rebuild the middle class, and if he wants to join us in carrying that vision across the state, he’s more than welcome to do so.”

Biden is also facing the head winds of history.

Since 1934, the only first-term president whose party hasn’t lost House seats in a midterm election was George W. Bush, when Republicans gained eight seats in the 2002 midterms at a time when the country was on wartime footing in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Incumbent presidents are often seen as a political liability, and candidates come up with creative ways to avoid a potentially damaging photo with them.

James Thurber, an author, historian and professor who founded American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said Biden faces a similar challenge to past presidents trying to persuade a skeptical electorate. But he also is in a position in which the country is far more polarized and Biden’s predecessor is so active in sowing doubt about him.

“Biden has a lot of things going against him,” he said. “He’s down in the polls, he has inflation. He has a former president’s supporters criticizing him and saying he’s not a legitimate president. These are unique in our history, in my opinion. Therefore, his strategy has got to adapt to that. And I think they know he has to be very careful and strategic.”

When Biden appears in Montgomery County, Md., on Thursday – his first political rally in months – he will be in friendly territory, and joined by the state’s marquee candidate.

“I will be there, and I’m excited to welcome him,” said Wes Moore, the state’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee. “If you look at what has happened in the last few months – infrastructure and climate, giving veterans exposed to burn pits care – that relationship and that partnership is important to the state of Maryland.”

Biden also is planning to travel to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Aug. 30 to talk about efforts to reduce gun violence. Some of the state’s top Democratic candidates – gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro and Senate candidate John Fetterman – have appeared with Biden previously, although it is unclear whether they will be there for the event.

In some midterm cycles when congressional candidates try to keep their distance, an incumbent president may find solace in standing with governors in friendly states. But the response for Biden has been largely lukewarm.

A spokeswoman for Ohio’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Nan Whaley, said she “would welcome anyone who believes in her vision for Ohio” but said they hadn’t asked Biden or Harris to come. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., recently held a virtual event with Biden around the CHIPS legislation – which is expected to provide a particular boon for Michigan – but it’s unclear if they would hold an in-person campaign event.

“As she has said previously, Governor Whitmer will continue to work with anyone to get things done for Michiganders, including President Biden and his administration,” said Maeve Coyle, the communications director for Whitmer’s campaign.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, D-N.Y., was one of the few candidates who said flatly that she would want Biden or Harris to campaign with her.

Midterm elections are often a mandate on the president, and Biden over his decades in public life has helped make the mandate about others. This will be the first time that challenge will be on him. And while Biden built his political brand around being affable and working across the aisle, he has become an animating force for Republicans.

One in five of all broadcast television ads include an attack on Biden, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project of data from Kantar Media/CMAG. He has been targeted more often than Obama was at this point in his first term, but not as negatively as Obama was in the 2014 midterms during his second term.

He has been attacked in greater frequency than even Trump was at this point in 2018, in part because Republicans have run more ads so far this year. But even now, Trump is mentioned almost as frequently as Biden – a rarity in politics, as prior presidents tend to be featured infrequently in midterm ads.

Less than 3% of the ads mention Biden in a positive light, and usually only as a fleeting message.

“From the few ads that mention Biden in a positive way, it’s not as if he’s featured in the ad themselves with the candidate walking down the White House lawn with the president,” said Michael Franz, a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “It’s pretty much the text itself, and in a litany of the other things the candidate is supporting. We treat that as a positive mention, but it’s not exactly an embrace of him or his leadership.”

The infrequent positive mentions of Biden are in line with past midterms, when Obama also went largely unmentioned in Democratic ads in 2010 and 2014, according to the analysis. But Trump is often mentioned in a positive light by Republicans, partly due to primary ads where his endorsement has been viewed as an asset.

“Trump is a weird, as always, outlier. In 2018, he was mentioned approvingly by plenty of Republicans in that cycle,” Franz said. “This time around Trump is also being mentioned positively even though he’s no longer president, which stands out, too.”

But some Democrats in tight races are now actively running against Biden, and criticizing him in their ads.

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, who is running for re-election in a district that Trump carried in 2020, recently took out an ad in which he says, “I was the only Democrat to vote against trillions of dollars of President Biden’s agenda because I knew it would make inflation worse.”

Kaptur, the Ohio representative who has held her seat for nearly four decades and is the longest-serving woman in the House, is running a new ad in which she explicitly blames Biden for “letting Ohio solar manufacturers be undercut by China” and touts how she is working with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

“Marcy Kaptur: She doesn’t work for Joe Biden,” the ad says. “She works for you.”

It’s possible that Biden will become more of a campaign trail draw in the coming weeks, and his advisers still hope he gets a bounce in polling after several weeks of positive news. They also hope that inflation numbers will hold steady or decrease, and that gas prices will continue to go down.

Biden has always prided himself on being one of the top draws for Democrats. In the 1970s, he was the young, rising star who became an early endorser of Jimmy Carter. In the 1980s, he was the accomplished senator and presidential candidate who spoke at Democratic dinners and enjoyed traveling the country.

Biden in 2010 was a key surrogate for the Obama administration, with the then-vice president traveling to districts where Obama himself wasn’t desired. That often meant White, working-class areas, which became part of Biden’s political brand.

In 2018, he was one of the most sought-after surrogates, traveling to suburban districts and Midwestern states where his brand as a moderate Democrat was viewed as a crucial asset.

He did events in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida. He held rallies in Montana for Sen. Jon Tester (“If I’d walk out into a parking lot and seven guys jumped me, this S-O-B would jump in and help me.”) and in Indiana for Joe Donnelly (“If I were coming through my neighborhood and I got jumped by four guys … it wouldn’t make a difference, Joe would jump in and help me.”).

A few weeks before the 2018 midterms, Biden came to Las Vegas to rally Nevada Democrats. Nearly every top Democrat in the state – Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford, Gov. Steve Sisolak, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto – appeared with him.

Asked in recent days whether they would like Biden to come to the state this time, Horsford, who affirmed he would, was the only one to respond.