WASHINGTON — Right after Joe Biden’s election victory in 2020, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman got a phone call. Whitman, a Republican, had endorsed Biden in the race against then-President Donald Trump. Now, the caller said, Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris wanted her cell number.
No one ever called.
“They never used it!” Whitman, who had spoken in support of Biden at the Democratic convention that year, said in an interview.
Whitman was part of a cohort of prominent Republicans who broke with the party in 2020. Fed up with Trump, they gravitated to Biden’s campaign thinking he would be a unifying figure who would lure moderate Republicans into government and ease partisan tensions that had been smoldering for years. Ditching the party nominee was nothing they took lightly. As Whitman said during her convention speech: "What am I doing here? I'm a lifelong Republican."
Since that time, Biden's GOP validators have largely scattered. Some say they never heard from the Biden political operation again. (Whitman said she hadn't been expecting outreach from Biden.) Others are disillusioned with Biden and mulling whether to endorse him or latch onto someone else, possibly a third-party candidate or a Republican other than Trump.
Their story amounts to a warning sign for the president — emblematic of the moderate Republican and independent voters who could end up deciding the 2024 election. Biden’s Electoral College victory last time came down to fewer than 43,000 votes in just three states: Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin. Defections by even a sliver of Biden voters in these and other battleground states could tip the White House back to the GOP.
An NBC News poll of registered voters this month showed that 44 percent would consider a third-party or independent candidate if the choice they face next year is Biden and Trump. Overall, only 35 percent of independent voters approved of Biden’s performance, compared to 53 percent who disapproved.
In a head-to-head matchup with Trump, Biden enjoys a 14-point lead among independents. Yet if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the GOP nominee, that lead shrinks to just two points, the poll found.
With the race underway, Biden has edged toward the center when it comes to drilling for oil in Alaska, crime and immigration. Liberals were disappointed, but it’s far from clear that the steps he’s taken are enough to expand his support. The NBC survey showed that voters who described themselves as "not very strong" Republicans — a group that Biden would love to attract — favored Trump by a whopping 71-point margin.
Biden didn’t appoint high-profile Republicans to Cabinet or senior staff positions in what would have been an inclusive gesture, some who endorsed him said. By contrast, when he took office in 2009, Democrat Barack Obama named Republican congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois to be his transportation secretary. He retained as defense secretary Robert Gates, who told the press he considered himself a Republican. Obama also nominated a third Republican, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, for the Commerce secretary job, though Gregg later withdrew.
Former Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut, endorsed Biden in 2020 but says he is now leaning toward former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow Republican. He plans to send Christie a donation and may actively campaign for him.
Shays said he doesn’t believe Biden will succeed in garnering GOP endorsements this time around “given how once he got elected, no one was really invited, no one was included.”
"Once the election was over, the Biden administration clearly had no interest in cultivating a relationship with former Republican members of Congress," Shays said. "I view this as a lost opportunity for someone we all respected. To this day, I wonder if Joe is fully aware of this.”'
In January 2022, Shays sent a letter to former Sen. Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who helped lead Biden's search for a running mate. Shays wrote about two other Republicans who spoke on Biden's behalf at the Democratic convention in Milwaukee that year: former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari and ex-Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
"And this fact ... seems so hard for me to believe: both John Kasich and Susan Molinari told me that after they spoke at the Democratic convention in support of Joe, no one gave them any feedback on how they did, or just took the time to thank them, not the president or anyone one the staff, to this very day," Shays wrote.
“Chris, in closing, given all the demands and challenges facing President Biden’s administration, I cannot believe he is truly aware there has been such a breakdown in his Administration’s basic political acumen,” he added.
Shays said he didn’t get a response to the letter. Molinari could not be reached for comment. Through a spokesman, Kasich declined to comment.
In some cases, Republicans who switched allegiances wound up with plum assignments. Former Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, was named U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Cindy McCain, widow of former senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, was tapped by Biden to be ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome.
Others don’t begrudge the Biden administration for the lack of outreach and say they would vote for him again if there is a head-to-head matchup with Trump. They’re just not certain Biden would win.
Miles Taylor was sitting at a neighborhood bar drinking a martini when Biden tried to reach him. It was the summer of 2020 and Taylor, former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security under Trump, had just endorsed Biden. Taylor missed the thank you call. He was sorry they never connected but, like Shays, believes the Biden White House “missed the moment to bring in moderate Republicans and show their commitment to unity.”
Now he fears it may be too late. In a rematch between Biden and Trump, Taylor says he would cast a vote for Biden but believes Trump would eke out a victory.
“It will be hard for Biden in this second go-round to win back those same moderate Republicans who defected from the GOP last time,” said Taylor, who appeared in a video ad denouncing Trump three months before the election.
“Those disaffected Republicans from 2020 have entirely gone back to the tribe," he added. "They’re sick of a Democratic administration. That’s a blinking red light for the president this time around.”
Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who also endorsed Biden in the last campaign, is intrigued by No Labels, a centrist group that is exploring whether to field an independent candidate. He said he won’t vote for Trump, but he is apprehensive about Biden mounting another campaign at age 80. During the 2020 campaign, Dent believed that Biden would serve only one term and then step aside. That's not what happened.
“I thought Biden sold himself as a transition figure to the next generation of leaders,” Dent said. “He would be the guy who helped stabilize the White House and normalize things and pass the torch. That was my impression — that this was his last swan song.”
Last time around, Biden made a point to showcase Republicans who’d renounced Trump. Scores of GOP lawmakers, national security experts and businesspeople came forward to endorse Biden, while Democrats set aside time at the party’s nominating convention for speeches from Republicans who had put “country over party.”
There are no guarantees Biden will be able to choreograph the same show of bipartisan force in the next election. Tom Coleman is a former Republican congressman from Missouri who endorsed Biden last time.
"They were going to stay in touch and I never heard back from them,” Coleman said. “I’m not upset about it, other than it would have been nice to say thank you after they won, but I’m a big boy, I don’t care.”
Heading into 2024, he added that he hasn’t seen an effort to reach out to like-minded Republicans.
“That’s not the president’s fault as much as the people who surround him, and the campaign now,” Coleman said. “But it’s foolish not to reach out to people, and I’m not talking about individuals as much as groups, to have them involved in your campaign. Why wouldn’t you want to? I don’t know.”