WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s recent political revitalization hasn’t stopped some Democrats in competitive midterm races from treating him like an in-law: always welcome but seldom wanted.
Democratic candidates are tiptoeing around his official visits, making case-by-case decisions about whether to appear with him. They're also speaking out against him on certain issues.
One campaign outright said it wasn't interested in a Biden visit, while a veteran House Democrat told voters she is “fighting back” against the president.
Democrats are walking a tightrope in characterizing their ties to Biden, which might seem counterintuitive considering the streak of legislative victories that have won the president a slew of positive headlines and helped his approval rating to start ticking back up.
The dynamic points to friction between Biden’s interests and those of fellow Democrats: He wants to show that he’s no longer politically toxic, and they're worried it might be too soon to take that step. The strained relationships are on display as Biden plans to tour the country, with an emphasis on battleground states, for a victory lap after recent accomplishments, including passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which is designed to lower the cost of prescription drugs and spend heavily on efforts to combat climate change, as well as an executive action to cancel some federal student loan debt.
“Nobody’s unhappy that Biden got some things done and that inflation seems to be easing a little bit, and maybe he’s not as dead in the water as it seemed six or eight months ago," said Wisconsin-based pollster and strategist Paul Maslin. "But let’s not kid ourselves: This is still a country where almost 80% of the people think that things are headed on the wrong track.”
Biden wants to tout his wins in swing states. But that’s a problem for Democratic candidates, many of whom would like to keep their distance when his numbers are still underwater and battleground Democrats are outperforming him. Biden’s approval was 42% in an NBC News poll of registered voters in August, with 55% disapproving of his performance.
“I don’t think there’s any Democrat in a competitive district who is clamoring for Biden to come,” said an aide to a high-profile Democrat in a tough race. “The White House wants to show that they’re back or whatever, but there’s just a disconnect.”
Biden launched his midterm campaign tour last week with a visit to Maryland — which he won by 33 percentage points in 2020 — to rally with Democratic nominee Wes Moore, who isn’t expected to have trouble winning the governorship.
Biden skipped over dozens of races in which the outcomes are in far greater doubt. In some of them, Democrats are in strong positions to win despite poor favorability ratings for Biden.
"It flies totally in the face of normal political calculus: The president's unpopular; his party's going to lose big. Well, that's not going to happen. President is still unpopular; his party is not going to lose big," Maslin said.
A Biden adviser pushed back against the notion that Democrats were distancing themselves, pointing to examples of the president’s having appeared or planning to appear at events with key battleground candidates, including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.
"The president’s going to be out there two to three times a week talking about the way that he and congressional Democrats have delivered for the American people and in contrast the extreme MAGA agenda that is being proposed by Republicans in battleground districts and battleground states," said the adviser, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record about the strategy.
Biden doesn’t appear to be taking it personally, and he has encouraged Democrats to do what they must to win in November.
“I’ll come campaign for him or against him, whichever will help the most,” Biden said to laughs last week at his event in Maryland, referring to Sen. Chris Van Hollen. And the Biden adviser noted that elected officials who diverge from the president on certain issues should be “speaking out about what they believe in and what their constituents are talking to them about."
"The president would expect nothing less,” the adviser added.
The best way for Biden to help Democrats as they try to hold on to their House majority and control of the Senate is to raise money for the party and stay out of their way on the campaign trail, said several Democratic insiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the White House.
If Biden wants to travel, they said, he should do so under the formal aegis of White House business and give candidates the choice of whether to appear with him at those events.
A source familiar with Biden’s travel plans said he is expected to hold several fundraisers ahead of the November elections, one of them in New York in mid-September for the Democratic National Committee.
In Ohio, former Democratic Party chair Chris Redfern pointed to an event that members of both parties are likely to attend alongside Biden: the ceremonial groundbreaking in September when Intel Corp. starts construction on two semiconductor facilities in central Ohio — a $20 billion project that is expected to benefit from substantial state and federal subsidies. Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican up for re-election, plans to be on hand. So does Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for an open Senate seat.
“Zero downside,” Redfern said of attending the event. “The reality is without the president's leadership, Intel would not be coming to Ohio.”
But several campaigns made a distinction between appearing with the president on official visits and in campaign appearances. While Ryan plans to attend the Intel event, his campaign still distanced itself.
"We haven’t been interested in him or any other out-of-state surrogates,” Ryan spokesperson Izzi Levy told The New York Times. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat who holds a wide lead over his GOP rival in the state’s Senate race, underscored the dynamic playing out across the country after his campaign fielded questions about whether he would appear with Biden during the president’s coming trips to Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh.
“John will not be at the Wilkes-Barre event with Biden, but he will be marching in the Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh next week, and he looks forward to talking to the president there about the need to finally decriminalize marijuana,” Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello said Monday, pointing to an issue about which the two Democrats disagree.
Hours later, the campaign sought to emphasize the split again, with Fetterman calling on Biden to use executive authority to start removing marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances.
Meanwhile, the campaign of Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, tiptoed around the question, saying Shapiro would march in Pittsburgh’s Labor Day parade — but not necessarily with Biden.
“Attorney General Shapiro will be in Pittsburgh marching with the hardworking men and women of labor on Monday as he campaigns to defeat our extremist opponent who has pledged to destroy the union way of life in our Commonwealth. As always, we welcome President Biden back to his home state of Pennsylvania,” campaign spokesman Manuel Bonder said in a statement to NBC News.
Shapiro is to appear with Biden at an official event Tuesday, but a spokesperson noted it would be "in his official capacity" as attorney general.
Polls show Shapiro leading Republican candidate Doug Mastriano by a small margin.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers said he would appear with Biden at a Labor Day parade, but that was after some blowback following a report that his aides had shut down a request by the president to appear jointly in July.
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is locked in a competitive race with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, hasn’t made a commitment to appear with Biden, with his campaign saying only that Barnes' "priority" was to engage with voters. Barnes will attend the Labor Day events, which span three Wisconsin cities.
“The lieutenant governor is excited to participate in Laborfest events throughout Milwaukee, Madison and Racine,” spokeswoman Maddy McDaniel said. “His priority is talking to Wisconsin voters and supporting the labor movement that gave his family a ticket to the middle class.”
In Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has distanced herself from Biden, with a source close to the campaign saying she wants to keep the focus on her Republican opponent, former Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Last week, Cortez Masto was among the battleground Democrats who panned Biden’s executive action forgiving federal student debt for many borrowers.
“His unfavorable rating isn’t helpful, especially with independent voters,” said a veteran Democratic strategist in Nevada. But, the strategist added, Biden isn’t a liability so much as battleground candidates are trying to avoid their races’ becoming nationalized. “These races are won and lost at the state level. These candidates have to run against their own villains.”
The distancing isn’t unique to Democrats. On the Republican side, Johnson of Wisconsin sidestepped questions this month about whether he would invite former President Donald Trump to campaign for him.
“To me, this election is about Wisconsin and about 2022," Johnson told reporters at a recent event in Milwaukee. "And so from my standpoint, I’ve never asked for anybody’s endorsement."
Trump’s net negative rating was twice that of Biden’s in the latest NBC News poll.But for some Democrats, just creating space from Biden isn’t enough.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, who has served in the House for nearly four decades, paid for an ad in which a narrator proclaims that she is “fighting back” against Biden for "letting Ohio solar manufacturers be undercut by China."
“She doesn’t work for Joe Biden,” the narrator says. “She works for you.”
The ad came after Kaptur appeared with Biden in July, which Republicans hammered her for doing.
Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., who represents Wilkes-Barre, invited Biden to come to town to talk about funding police and combating gun violence, a visit that had to be rescheduled to Tuesday because of the president's recent bout with Covid-19. But Cartwright, who is in one of the most competitive districts in the country, acknowledged in an interview this month that he hadn’t asked Biden to appear at a campaign stop.
“I don’t have plans for it,” he said. “But he is most welcome.”
Cartwright said he's not concerned that Biden could drag him down, because his constituents “understand that I’m a different guy” from the president. “If I were a generic Democratic congressional candidate, maybe I would worry about it.”
When it comes down to specific races and whether to stand alongside Biden, Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said, each House and Senate contest is its own animal.
"Democrats should focus on the key issues and the flaws of your opponents, not national political life preservers — there are none in 2022," he said. "There are no current or former presidential saviors."