August 26

By Susan Milligan

The Democratic president was facing a grim midterm election scenario, and his own popularity problem wasn’t helping down-ticket candidates in his party very much. So the president – in this case, Barack Obama – sent his then-vice president, Joe Biden, out to crisscross the country in 2010 to campaign with individual Democratic lawmakers and candidates for Congress, hoping Biden’s blue-collar credentials could stave off a red wave that was quickly becoming a tsunami.

Now, it’s President Joe Biden who is facing the dreaded first midterm election season, a test that has resulted in ruling-party losses in nearly every case in modern history. And like Obama, Biden – with abysmally low approval ratings despite a recent string of legislative successes – isn’t expected to get a ton of requests from vulnerable Democrats to campaign with them.

Unlike his former boss, however, Biden is seeing this midterm picture look a lot brighter as campaigns gear up for the traditional post-Labor Day push. Obama suffered what he described as a “shellacking” – a loss of seven Democratic seats in the Senate and a whopping 63 seats in the House, the latter being the biggest party shift in seats since the 1948 election.

This cycle, Democrats are increasingly confident of hanging on to their control of the Senate and even expanding their majority by a seat or two. Control of the House – where Republicans need only to flip a handful of seats to gain the speakership – is still widely expected to go to Republicans, but Democrats are starting to entertain the possibility that they just might hang on to the majority.

In four special elections for House seats (all of which happened after the Supreme Court’s late June decision reversing the guaranteed right to an abortion), Democrats overperformed, meaning they did better than Biden did in those districts in the 2020 presidential election.

In the most recent election, Democrat Pat Ryan defeated a well-known Republican, Marc Molinaro, in an upstate New York swing district. That win does not give Democrats a pickup (it was held by Democrat Anthony Delgado, who left to become New York’s lieutenant governor), but it is exactly the sort of district that would typically flip parties in a midterm election when the president is unpopular.

Meanwhile, Democrats are maintaining steady (if small) leads in polls in Senate races in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio, while eyeing encouraging polls in places where Democrats are imperiled, such as Nevada, Arizona and Georgia. In what would have been unthinkable even a month ago, Democrats are expanding their map and their hopes to Senate races in North Carolina, where polls now have the Senate candidates virtually tied, and in Florida, where incumbent GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is being challenged by Rep. Val Demings, a former police chief.

While analysts caution that the political winds could shift quickly, they also say this November could break the midterm election mold, with a sitting president’s party picking up seats or hanging onto congressional majorities despite widespread public disapproval of the commander in chief himself.

The president kicked off the fall campaign season Thursday night in Maryland’s Montgomery County, where he rallied Democratic National Committee members and set up the fall contests as a choice between a Democratic regime that has racked up a number of achievements, and a GOP vision tied to “special interests.”

“What we’re seeing now, is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy. It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the – I’m going to say something, it’s like semi-fascism,” Biden said at a private reception with Democrats in Bethesda, using unusually harsh language to describe the movement championed by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

At a rally afterward, a newly fired-up Biden cast the election as a referendum on reproductive rights, gun safety, affordable prescription drugs, and “the very survival of our planet,” while Republicans, he said, took credit for projects in bills they opposed and promote a vision of “violence, anger and division.”

“Ignorance knows no boundaries,” Biden said. “But we never gave up, we never gave in, and we’re delivering for the American people now.” While Biden slammed Republicans onstage, the White House official Twitter account did a brutal take-down of Republican lawmakers who criticized Biden’s order to forgive as much as $20,000 in student loans for lower- and middle-income Americans. Accompanying the GOP lawmakers’ remarks, the White House reported the hundreds of thousands – even millions – of dollars those lawmakers had gotten from the federal government in forgiven loans under a pandemic recovery program.

The White House says Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Cabinet members will travel this fall, promoting the Democratic agenda. Biden is scheduled to travel to Ohio’s Licking County on Sept. 2 to tout the infrastructure law and the CHIPS act to promote domestic production of semiconductors.

Still, Biden’s approval numbers are stubbornly low. Democrats can do best for themselves, analysts and political operatives say, by bragging about Biden’s successes – without actually attaching themselves to the man himself.

“By definition, Biden has gone out of his way to not be omnipresent like other recent modern presidents. He has not been out front on everything – seemingly on purpose,” says Democratic strategist Joel Payne, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“One advantage of that type of approach to the job is you have a neutral impact. In this circumstance where the president’s job approval is lagging behind many Democrats, especially those in key Senate states, it is helpful that he is not an anchor,” Payne says.

James Thurber, founder of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, notes that Democratic House candidates are running ads touting their support of Biden’s legislative wins, such as the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But they don’t mention the president at all in their ads.

“They’re bragging about what’s been done. Now they have mojo” heading into the midterms, Thurber says. “But they are avoiding him.”

As a political veteran, “Biden understands all this,” and has kept out of the public eye when it served the ultimate goal, Thurber says. For example, when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York was negotiating with fellow Senate Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia on the Inflation Reduction Act, “Biden was very quiet. He and his staff were quietly working behind the scenes,” Thurber says. The end result was an unexpected deal and a win for the Biden administration and a campaign talking point for Democrats.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates Democrats are becoming more enthusiastic about November without connecting it to Biden himself. Democrats (69%) are now almost as likely as Republicans (72%) to say it “really matters” who controls Congress in the fall – a big change from March, when 61% of Democrats said it really mattered who ran things on Capitol Hill.

Further, about half (49%) of voters said Biden is not much of a factor in determining their votes this fall, the Pew study found, with 31% seeing their midterm decision a vote against Biden and 19% seeing it as a vote to support the president. In March, 38% said Biden wouldn’t be a factor, suggesting the president’s struggling approval ratings will be less of a drag for Democrats this fall.

Also helping Democrats are events – and their nemesis, Trump, and his most ardent followers. The Dobbs ruling undoing abortion rights has energized previously dispirited and disinterested Democratic voters, whose anger of the high court ruling has stayed steady as GOP candidates make blunt statements denouncing abortion under any circumstances, including rape and incest.

In Michigan, for example, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, considered a ripe target for Republicans earlier in the election cycle, is now comfortably and consistently ahead of her antiabortion GOP opponent, Tudor Dixon. Dixon recently enraged Democrats when she she said “there is healing through the baby” when a rape victim carries her attacker’s pregnancy to term.

Trump, who is facing legal woes on several fronts and under fire amid disclosures that he kept classified information at his Mar-a-Lago club, is taking attention away from Biden as the sitting president tries to draw attention to his successes, Thurber notes. While Biden wants to talk about the infrastructure bill, the climate change and health care law, NATO expansion, the first gun safety legislation to pass in 28 years, and bread-and-butter moves such as allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter, “it’s hard to out-scream a train wreck” like the Trump travails, Thurber says.

But the drama surrounding the former president (who, unnerving fellow Republicans, keeps dangling the possibility of announcing a 2024 presidential run before the midterms) also serves to distract attention from Biden, says Stu Rothenberg, author of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

“Elections are more than anything about something – and this election, which should be overwhelmingly about Biden, seems to be less about Biden,” Rothenberg says. “That’s because Trump has basically interjected himself on an hourly basis into the election.

“I can’t say it will remain that way between now and November, but in the past few weeks, the Republicans have done a good job in making the election not a referendum on Joe Biden but on other stuff. And the other stuff is stuff Democrats have an advantage on,” Rothenberg adds.

Biden – and by extension, Democrats are vulnerable on inflation, which affects virtually all voters, experts note. And it’s harder for Biden and Democrats to point to tangible successes from his legislative accomplishments, since many of the benefits won’t be felt for months or years.

The string of victories on Capitol Hill aren’t “lighting a fire right now for him,” says Bill Cunningham, a longtime Democratic strategist based in New York. “But it’s a long fuse. People know he has a lot of successes.”

Those may help Democrats this fall – even if the man behind them does not.