By Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt
(Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden launches a coast-to-coast tour this week to tout the new climate and tax bill and boost Democrats running in November's elections. But when he arrives, some of those candidates may be nowhere in sight, fearing Biden is too much of a liability.
Democrats hope the trip will boost the president's poor poll numbers and draw attention to his achievements. But some candidates for Congress worry that campaigning with Biden will hurt them in the Nov. 8 election, according to more than a dozen interviews with senior Democrats and local campaign officials in battleground states including Pennsylvania and Arizona.
Biden, whose latest approval rating is 40%, is polling lower than most, if not all, Democratic candidates in competitive races, often by double digits, Democratic pollsters said.
The trip, the latest effort to reset his presidency, will test the limits of Biden's influence in a party that has shown flashes of disloyalty in recent weeks. Some Democratic members of Congress have questioned whether Biden, at 79 already the oldest U.S. president, should run for reelection in 2024.
As they consider campaigning with him, Democratic candidates will closely watch whether Biden can move public opinion on his tour. On the plus side, Biden can share good news about recent legislative victories on climate change, gun control and boosting domestic microprocessor production along with a Kansas victory on abortion rights.
“Sure it was a great month, but the jury is still out whether it actually made a difference or whether it's just too late,” said one senior Democrat.
Meanwhile, opposition Republicans have unified around attacking Biden despite the party's internal divisions over former President Donald Trump and the fatal Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Right-wing media, elected officials and Trump have hammered a message that the White House has struggled to combat: Biden and his policies are responsible for record inflation, and he's old, doddering and confused.
While Biden's defenders note that inflation is higher in some other countries and say he is undiminished, some candidates worry they may face awkward questions at events about whether they support the president's reelection. Their answers could serve as fodder for Republican rivals, sources said.
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Tim Ryan is running a populist campaign in Ohio against Trump-backed Republican J.D. Vance. The state has shifted hard to Republicans in recent elections, but polls show the race is a toss-up.
In July, Ryan, who currently holds a seat in the U.S. House, cited scheduling conflicts for skipping a Biden economic speech in Cleveland and has dodged questions about whether Biden should run again. Ryan would only consider appearing with Biden under limited circumstances, an official with the campaign effort told Reuters.
The official, for example, noted that Biden is expected to return to Ohio in coming weeks for the groundbreaking of an Intel plant that will eventually provide 3,000 jobs and get a big boost from the recently passed CHIPS Act, which aids the semiconductor industry.
“That is something Tim Ryan would likely attend with Biden. The messaging and politics are aligned,” the official said.
Ryan campaign spokesperson Izzi Levy said she could not comment on his plans related to his congressional work. But regarding political events with Biden, she said, “We have not asked him to campaign in Ohio and have no plans to do so.”
The Nov. 8 elections will determine whether Democrats retain their slim majorities in the House and Senate, or Republicans gain control. There are 43 competitive House races and seven Senate races, according to a Reuters analysis of data from three nonpartisan research groups on the competitiveness of U.S. elections. The White House thinks it can make gains in the Senate despite expected losses in the House.
Biden will speak at a Democratic National Committee event in Maryland on Thursday, his first political rally in months. It will serve as the kickoff to his midterm push. Democrats at the top of the ticket in Maryland are largely running against Trump-aligned opponents who face an uphill battle in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one.
Democrats in competitive races across the country say they are eager to see Biden hit the road and combat Republican attacks by boasting about a string of legislative achievements that include historic bipartisan bills on gun control and infrastructure along with more partisan achievements on climate change and health care. Officials frequently use the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats.
“If Biden can lift his poll numbers, it helps all Democrats,” a Democratic pollster involved in Pennsylvania races said.
In Pennsylvania, campaign officials say a Biden visit is unnecessary – and potentially risky – because Democrats have early leads over Republican candidates viewed as flawed. Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano is a Trump-backed election-denier who attended the Jan. 6 rally in Washington while Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz is struggling in early polls amid questions about his ties to the state.
“We hope the president comes to the state, but we are not sure how much the Democratic candidates will be joining him. At this point, it doesn't make much sense,” said one senior Democratic official involved in the governor's race.
Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, has appeared with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris separately this year. Manuel Bonder, a campaign spokesman, said Shapiro “will continue welcoming President Biden to his home state.”
Jennifer Holdsworth, a Democratic strategist, called the decision by some Democrats to distance themselves from Biden a “colossal mistake.”
“This has been a monumentally consequential administration. Voters don't care about the politics of the moment, they care about results and this administration has delivered,” Holdsworth said.
(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Heather Timmons and Cynthia Osterman)