PITTSBURGH — There really was no debate among Joe Biden’s political team about where he should kick off his midterm campaigning — Pittsburgh’s Labor Day parade. The question now is where does he go from here, both literally and figuratively, as Biden himself might put it.
After a rather quiet summer that ended in mourning with the loss of his colleague and friend John McCain, Biden burst onto the stump Monday surrounded by his brand of Democrats — thousands of union members and the working class, Rust Belt voters that Biden has warned his party not to turn its back on.
“I've known these guys my whole life,” Biden told NBC News as he began a day of hand-shaking, selfie- taking and close-talking retail campaigning here. “My grandfather, Finnegan in Scranton used to say, ‘Joe you're labor from belt buckle to shoe shine, man.’ I'd go anywhere with these guys. These are the guys that brought me to the dance.”
Aides to the former vice president spent the summer collecting requests from Democratic candidates across the country to begin mapping out what they say will be an active schedule in the midterm’s closing weeks. Few final commitments have been made, but they say this week’s schedule is a good snapshot of what’s to come as he prepares for dozens of campaign stops in each of the nine remaining weeks of the campaign.
After marching in Monday’s Labor Day parade with Rep. Conor Lamb and Sen. Bob Casey in Pittsburgh, Biden will appear in the New York suburbs with Mikie Sherrill, a slight favorite to win a New Jersey congressional seat that has been in Republican hands for three decades.
Sherrill is one of 48 Democratic candidates for House, Senate and governor that Biden has endorsed — a process that he hasn’t taken lightly, aides say. The veteran politician was most eager to get behind those candidates who share his vision for the party, one that begins with a laser-like focus on the middle class.
"My dad used to have an expression. A job is a lot more than just a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about your respect. It’s about look your kid in the eye and say, 'honey it's gonna be okay,'” Biden said Monday.
Biden will spend a lot of time this fall in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, targeting just that demographic in areas where Democrats could pick up at least a half dozen congressional seats — a good chunk of the two dozen or so they’d need to take back control of the House for the first time since 2011.
Aides also pointed to two other major areas of focus: The Southwest, where Democrats have pick-up opportunities in key gubernatorial races like New Mexico and congressional races in Texas.
And as a veteran of the Senate, he'll also look to help those incumbent Democrats in some of the reddest states in the country. Biden has already raised money and campaigned with Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnell and others, and is expected to make return visits for several as the race takes shape.
Two states where Biden will be conspicuously absent: Iowa and New Hampshire, the leadoff states in the Democratic nominating contest. Aides to the former vice president say that for him to campaign even for candidates there he has close connections, like Iowa congressional hopeful Abby Finkenauer, would bring more attention on his political future than the races in question.
Biden brushed off questions about whether Monday represented an audition of sorts for 2020, even as he signaled his potential message about the incumbent president. He said that it was “about time we started talking to each other like we’re civilized, and deal with one another with respect.” Asked about President Donald Trump’s reaction to the death of McCain, Biden was dismissive.
“I don’t have any,” he said. “Everybody knows who the president is.”
Biden has maintained that no decision about what would be a third presidential bid will come until after the November vote — likely after a final gut-check family discussion at year’s end.
For now, his inner circle is doing its due diligence to make sure Biden has the runway to wage a viable campaign if he chooses to.
But while some potential 2020 Democrats have been eager to back candidates from the ascendant progressive wing of the party, Biden has at times backed some incumbents they’re targeting — including in the former Delaware senator’s home state.
He endorsed in a home state primary for the first time — backing his former Senate colleague Tom Carper, who faces Kerri Harris, a candidate running with the support of the Working Families Party and progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Biden insisted Monday that the party is united, as he emphasized the importance of the midterm elections.
“Everything,” he said when asked what’s at stake this November. “We're in a fight for the soul of America.”
Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., said there’s no question Biden would enter the presidential race as one of the frontrunners, and potentially be the party’s most viable nominees against Trump. The second-term Democrat representing the Philadelphia suburbs founded the House Blue Collar Caucus after Trump’s 2016 victory in large part because he thinks it would be a “tragic mistake” for Democrats to write off the type of working-class voters Donald Trump pulled away. And he invited Biden to address his caucus to discuss electoral strategy this summer.
“People can clearly tell that while in fact he may have been in Washington a long time he still authentically cares about people and connects with them,” Boyle said. “For all the policies we can talk about … in the end being a genuine person who connects with people who understands their fears and their concerns and their hopes and dreams — you can’t put a price tag on that.”