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Democrat facing tough re-election battle rolls out welcome mat for Biden in Ohio

Biden’s visit is part of a White House strategy to have him on the road more ahead of the midterm elections, selling Democratic accomplishments like the infrastructure bill.
Image: U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur at Reynolds Garden Cafe in Toledo, Ohio on January 26, 2022.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, at Reynolds Garden Cafe in Toledo on Jan. 26.Brittany Greeson for NBC News

CLEVELAND — As some Democrats in tough races appear to keep their distance from him, President Joe Biden can count on at least one big political embrace when he visits Ohio on Thursday.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, whose Lake Erie-hugging district is expected to be drawn more favorably for Republicans this year, has framed her decision to seek another term as a commitment to Biden and his agenda. And although her GOP challengers are eager to link her to a president with an approval rating that keeps dropping, Kaptur isn’t shy about offering superlatives. 

"I mean, this man is going to go down in history as a great president," Kaptur, who plans to meet Air Force One at the airport here and accompany Biden to an event in nearby Lorain, said in an interview. "We’ve got to help him. Most of these people get in there and all they do is run around the country. They don’t deliver. This man has delivered."

Biden’s travels in recent weeks to Georgia and Pennsylvania yielded headlines about the Democrats who, for whatever reason, didn’t join him. Beto O'Rourke, a candidate for governor in Texas, has said he doesn’t want "any national politician" assisting his campaign. While Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., appeared with Biden at an event in her district last week, she told The Washington Post that she felt a "duty" to ensure her constituents were heard by the president.

Kaptur, by comparison, radiates enthusiasm. She effusively praises Biden's work to pass the American Rescue Plan and a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which Biden will promote in his remarks in Lorain. She also highlights less-noticed moves, such as a pension relief package aimed at several blue-collar trades key to Ohio’s economy.

“Ohio should be saluting him with flags from one end of the state to the other for that alone,” Kaptur said of the pension effort. “That was a big deal. He got hardly any publicity.”

Not every prominent Ohio Democrat will be waving those flags Thursday. Neither of the party's leading candidates for governor is expected to attend Biden's event. Rep. Tim Ryan, a Senate contender who represents another northern Ohio district, was invited, according to a spokesperson, but had a previous campaign commitment.

“Anyone who follows politics knows Ohio is a key state, and that’s no different in this year’s election,” Ryan said in a statement. “That’s why I’m staying focused on campaigning hard in every corner of the state on the issues that matter most to working families here — rebuilding our infrastructure, revitalizing manufacturing, taking on China, and cutting workers in on the deal.”

Biden’s Ohio visit — and Kaptur's eagerness to participate in it — is part of a White House strategy to have him on the road more ahead of the midterm elections, selling Democratic accomplishments like the infrastructure bill while not dwelling on the party's failure so far to pass voting rights legislation or expand the social safety net. In remarks previewing the Lorain event, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden would discuss how the infrastructure bill includes investments for “cleanup and restoration efforts in the Great Lakes region.”

Kaptur emphasizes such issues and said she appreciates how Biden’s Cabinet — former Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio at Housing and Urban Development, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm at the Energy Department and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, at the Transportation Department — reflects a deep understanding of them.

"He has very highly placed people in all of his departments that come from this region," Kaptur said of Biden. “That is extraordinary. That is extra extraordinary. That doesn’t happen. But he did it for us, and I say, thank you, Joe Biden. Thank you for seeing us.”

Kaptur's move to orient her re-election bid in lockstep with Biden is another example of how she is trying to swim against the tide in a year that could be brutal for her party. Already the longest-serving woman in House history, she opted not to join the swarm of other Democrats who are retiring from Congress rather than navigate tricky re-election paths.

Republicans see an easy opportunity to score points against her. A Quinnipiac University poll this week pegged Biden’s approval rating at 35 percent.

"I’m not sure who’s more excited about Biden coming to Ohio — Marcy Kaptur or Theresa Gavarone," said Josh Culling, a GOP strategist in the district who is advising Gavarone, a Republican state senator who is planning to challenge Kaptur this year.

But it’s not clear what the redrawn district will look like. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected a Republican-drawn map that would have removed Lorain and western Cleveland from Kaptur's 9th Congressional District. Kaptur and her allies would at least like to retain Lorain and add surrounding Lorain County, which would keep more of the Lake Erie shoreline with her long-standing Toledo turf.

Once solidly Democratic, Lorain County favored Hillary Clinton by a 131-vote margin in 2016 before President Donald Trump won it by about 3,800 votes in his 2020 re-election bid. Democrats like Kaptur and Sen. Sherrod Brown, known for their long and friendly relationships with blue-collar voters, have performed well there, however.

“The times, they are a-changin’,” said David Arredondo, the chair of the Lorain County GOP. “It’s been a while that the county has been moving over into the red column. I think that this visit by the president to Lorain is to spark the base. I think it’s a losing cause.”

Ohio’s once-bright battleground star dimmed after Trump won it twice by 8-point margins. After Biden’s visit Thursday, the state will trail only Pennsylvania, Virginia and Michigan on the list of his most frequent stops since he took office. Brown, the only Democrat who has won a partisan statewide election in the last decade, said Biden’s trip reinforces that the state is a good place to reach voters who appreciate working-class values.

“You need to show that the government’s on their side,” said Brown, who is chairing a Banking Committee hearing Thursday and unable to attend Biden's speech. “I win elections in Ohio because I center my campaign and my performance in office around workers.”

Other top Ohio Democrats see Biden’s latest trip as validation that the state remains competitive in the eyes of national party leaders.

“I think his fourth trip here shows that nationally and in Washington that they understand what we already know,” said Liz Walters, the state Democratic Party chair. “Those of us who live here and have been doing this work on the ground, we know that our state is a battleground and that there’s a lot of opportunity here to tell the story of what good is being done and that we have a powerful narrative to share, to really talk about how we move our country and move the state forward.”