As President Joe Biden headed west this week, Air Force One flew over a series of states where Senate and House races will be decided by which party controls Congress next year.
It didn’t land on any of them.
The president’s rare four-day visit is unfolding with a definite measure of politics and policy, including numerous stops in Colorado, California and Oregon. But in November he avoided some of the most critical western states for Democrats: Nevada and Arizona.
In both states, the gubernatorial and Senate contests, along with some House contests, could change the political dynamic for the second half of Biden’s first term and determine which party controls the levers of government in the two presidential battlegrounds in 2024.
The calibrated view reflects the reality of an election year: Biden does not remain a leader for Democrats, although many of his policies (infrastructure investments and the new climate and health care law) are very popular. Instead of running alongside some of this year’s weaker candidates, Biden is using events in Democratic strongholds to highlight his accomplishments, rally support for his party and raise millions of dollars from donors.
“President Biden knows where he’s wanted and where he’s not wanted,” a senior Democrat who works with the White House told CNN. “This is not the first midterm campaign.”
The president, who speaks regularly with Democratic candidates and follows the House, Senate and governor’s races closely, has told advisers that he believes his best contribution is to use the megaphone to create a stark contrast to the rivals he often mocks. extreme “MAGA republicans”.
Since early September, Biden has appeared with a handful of Democratic candidates, including in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and last week’s Labor Day rally in New York state. But he has held only a handful of major rallies and has twice been forced to postpone plans for a major political event in Florida — once because he contracted Covid and again with Hurricane Ian — but will return before Election Day, party aides said.
Candidates are often eager to appear with Biden when he makes an official appearance, as he did Wednesday in Colorado with Sen. Michael Bennet, a vocal proponent of naming Camp Hale, the former high-level training ground for the venerable 10th Mountain. Division, a national monument.
“He came to the White House, and he said, ‘I told you what I need,'” Biden said after Bennet was brought on stage at the event. “And I said I would. Do you know why? I was worried that he would never leave the damn White House.”
In his bid for re-election, Bennet is facing a more competitive race than he thought, from Republican Joe O’Dea, a Denver construction company owner who is making his first run for office. But Biden won Colorado by 13 percentage points, which makes it a more hospitable environment for a presidential visit.
It is much different in neighboring Arizona or Nevada, where Democratic senators Mark Kelly and Catherine Cortez Masto are locked in two of the toughest races of the year, partly because Republicans want to tie them to the policies of Biden and his administration.
During the debate last week, Kelly pushed back on the central issue of immigration and sought to distance herself from her 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 stupid 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 can be helpful, aides said, and avoid traveling to areas where nationalizing the race would be harmful to candidates. The logistics of presidential travel make some trips difficult, aides said, because campaigns must help defray the expensive costs of Air Force One.
He has been deployed several times a week to raise money with donors: in fancy apartments in New York or Boston, in backyards in Los Angeles, and even at virtual events. Biden was expected to appear alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at an event in Los Angeles on Thursday evening, raising millions of dollars for House Democrats.
John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate candidate, will headline a fundraiser in Philadelphia on October 20, with an earlier stop 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 races in the country and has been the site of frequent visits by Biden.
It’s not uncommon for sitting presidents to have more draws from donors than voters. Before his 2014 term, then-President Barack Obama went to fundraisers several days a week, but he wasn’t often on the campaign trail with Democratic candidates.
For Biden, this election marks the 50th anniversary of his first win in Delaware’s Senate race. Since 1972, he’s had a front-row seat to the highs and lows of Election Day, and as history shows, he’s almost always unfriendly to the President’s party.
Biden has always been pragmatic in his campaign draw: “I’ll campaign for you or against you, whoever will help the most,” he occasionally says in his speeches, a mantra he’s employed for decades.
Emerging from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Biden aides said the president was eager to begin a more packed travel schedule, including touting his accomplishments and promoting Democrats. After a string of victories over the summer, including the passage of key Democratic priorities in Congress and lower gas prices, Biden was particularly eager to talk to Americans about what he had accomplished.
The president’s approval rating has gradually rebounded from a summer slump, with 44 percent of American adults now approving of his performance, according to the latest CNN poll, up from 38 percent in June and July polls.
His ratings are up 9 percentage points among Democrats and 8 points among independents since the previous poll, and the president’s image has improved 17 points among black Americans and 11 points among adults under 45.
The White House is taking some solace in those findings, advisers say, even as concerns about inflation and the broader economy remain a significant challenge for the president.
The president’s aides are also closely monitoring the rise in gas prices, driven by some refineries offline for maintenance. For some of Biden’s senior team, the metric is no longer important before November.
Despite the increase in Biden’s approval rating, a recent CNN poll found that 47 percent of voters say Biden will not be a factor in the midterm vote. But among those who say the November vote is sending a message, 28% say it’s a vote against Biden, and only 23% say it’s a vote for his policies.
In the final leg of the election campaign, the president is scheduled to be on the road several days a week, aides said, pushing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the Inflation Reduction Act and other administration accomplishments. Consultants say his schedule includes ribbon-cutting ceremonies and groundbreaking events, all designed to generate local news coverage.
In some cases, Biden has appeared in critical battleground states, allowing him to promote his agenda without directly entering the race. In September, Biden promoted the infrastructure bill 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, across the state line from Pennsylvania.
“We have been very clear that the president will come out, the vice president will come out, the secretaries of the Cabinet. And you’ll see Democrats in Congress; they will talk about the success we’ve seen in this administration over the last 19 months,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week.
“I don’t have a specific location to share for the next four weeks,” he continued. “But of course the president loves being out there. And you will see, the president will continue to travel.”
In addition to travel, the White House is making plans for the president to do more television interviews in the coming weeks in an effort to build on his accomplishments. In the two months leading up to the midterm elections, he will do more interviews than he has while in office, aides said.
When he arrived in California on Wednesday night, Biden extended a long hug to Rep. Karen Bass, the Democratic candidate for mayor of Los Angeles who was once on his short list to run. And he hugged her, a sign that he sees hugging Biden as good politics in his race.
The president will close his Western swing with a visit to Oregon, where Biden polled 17 percent just two years ago. But now, Democrats are deeply concerned about a three-way race for governor, along with two congressional seats at risk of going to Republicans.
She will appear alongside Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek and other local officials.
With the voter registration deadline set for Oct. 18, the president’s stops in Portland are designed to excite Democrats and motivate independents as he lays out the stakes for potential Republican control of Congress and the governorship, which could help determine the implementation of key parts of his agenda.
With only 25 days until the Nov. 8 election, aides say they’re already planning a mini-election night at the White House. The results will help set the course for the final two years of his first term, advisers said, and also help inform his thinking about the biggest political decision of all: whether he intends to run for office.