Democrats hunt for the right campaign stars

Democrats want their brightest stars to hit the campaign trail ahead of November.

The only problem? It’s an open question who they are.

Democrats hold the White House, but President Biden’s less-than-stellar approval ratings — even with a possible bump from the State of the Union last week — might not have candidates welcoming him on the campaign trail.   

Progressive fixtures such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) can draw a bigger crowd than Biden anyway, based on the 2020 Democratic primary cycle. But it’s far from clear if their messages will play well in the swing-districts that will determine the next House majority.

In the race for the Senate, Democratic candidates will have to decide whether they’re better off standing with Sanders and Warren — or Biden and Vice President Harris.

“Biden won’t play well in some of these places, and I can say the same for Harris,” said one adviser to a congressional candidate running for election in California. “They’ve both been disappointing to some Democrats.”

Democrats believe the Senate map looks more promising than the House, which many think is almost certain to be lost given historic midterm trends and the current tiny majority.

The race for the upper chamber is slightly more favorable. Candidates are trying to win or retain seats in a number of states Biden narrowly won in the 2000 presidential election, including Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Nevada.

But there’s a debate about how much to move to the middle or the center for candidates that will influence the surrogate selection process.

Some moderate Democrats say that the demand for progressives in core urban areas, where they have had proven success, doesn’t translate to swing areas with higher populations of independent and Republican voters. They say candidates in those types of states and districts are more cautious to avoid any figures who could end up tipping the election scales against them and point to policies that may alienate such voters.

Some democratic socialists, for example, recently came out against sanctions to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

“I’d be surprised if somebody in North Carolina or Pennsylvania or Florida or Wisconsin, in the general election, if they brought in any of the really leftist people,” said James Carville, a veteran campaign consultant. “I don’t think anybody’s asking them.”

“They ride by themselves on the school bus. No one wants to be on it with them,” he said.

Others, however, believe there’s inherent risk to sending anyone from the party’s so-called big tent — even its highest profile names — while the country remains deeply divided, and that calculations need to be made around that reality.

Asked if there’s a significant difference between sending progressives like Sanders or Warren over the more moderate occupants of the Oval Office to key battlegrounds, one pollster in Biden’s orbit said it can be consequential.

“There is. It’s a test of base vs. swing [voters],” said Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster who consulted for Biden’s presidential campaign and is in touch with the administration.

In Lake’s view, the difficulty for Democrats is that it’s not only left-wing icons who can be divisive.

“Harris has some of the same polarization,” she told The Hill. “One can target [the] base in a way that might have less backlash.”

Biden and Harris have been going to other swing states, including places former President Trump won last election such as Ohio and North Carolina.

But they have not done so as surrogates, and their trips at times have appeared to be intended to help build toward Biden’s own race in 2024. Harris is also seen as Biden’s likely successor if he chooses not to run for reelection.  

While Biden had dedicated constituencies during the primary and general elections, polling indicates that some of those same voters have become less enthusiastic about the president during his first term, leaving his overall luster in question.

“The challenge is the president doesn’t have a defined base,” the Democratic strategist said, discussing the difficulty of identifying populations he could target in the fall. “He has a coalition of suburbanites, some independents, and maybe some older Black supporters, but there isn’t a place where Joe Biden is dominant.”

Biden would have to help newer candidates get elected in the states he only just barely captured over Trump, which adds to the fear.

In Georgia and Arizona, Biden won by a slim margin in both previously red states. Over a year into his term, it’s unclear if his presence would greatly enhance incumbent senators’ reelection prospects, particularly during a time of national unrest.

“If you are Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, I don’t know how much Joe Biden helps you right now,” said a second Democratic strategist. “I don’t know if he helps you in a college town like Athens or even in Atlanta.

“And if you’re Sen. Mark Kelly [D-Ariz.], I think you want someone who can help turnout the Latino vote. I don’t know if Biden does that.”

Unlike Biden, Sanders over-performed with both younger voters and Latinos during the presidential primary, two areas where some progressives believe he and other like-minded liberals can still make an impact on the trail. 

Chuck Rocha, who served as a senior adviser during Sanders’s presidential bid, said there are a number of rising stars who can go into Hispanic communities and could possibly connect more organically than the sitting president and vice president.

He pointed to Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who leans to the left, as potentially resonating with that voting bloc and said that such visits could be the difference in swing Senate races with the right messaging.

Rocha also argued someone like Gallego could also improve candidates’ chances in the battle for the House.

“He’s great on the stump, bilingual, he’s passionate, he’s got a story about Jan. 6th,” Rocha said. “He’s good on camera. You could put him in a social media post.”

There are roughly a dozen congressional seats that are toss-ups, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Six of them have a Latino population of 40 percent.

Sending in big-ticket names to help candidates is part of every election’s playbook. But with other issues plaguing the country — an intensifying Ukraine crisis, soaring inflation and a pandemic moving into its third year — some Democrats suggest the need to have top party figures has waned, regardless of whether they are progressive or moderate.

Those in that camp believe that in both House and Senate contests, having a localized message from community officials and leaders is more effective because it keeps the focus away from Washington, D.C.

“I don’t think any national Democrat is helpful,” said a top operative close to the Biden administration.

“At the end of the day, front line Dem candidates are going to have to drive their own branding as MI Democrats or NC Democrats,” the operative said. “Differentiation from national Democratic branding will be the key to success.”

Still, there are some prominent party leaders who have proven to be popular both at home and on the national stage.

In 2020, two Midwestern moderates, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), dazzled voters in parts of the country where Democrats are now competing down-ballot.

Buttigieg from nearby South Bend, Ind., won the Iowa caucus over his more progressive rivals. He has since been on the trail touting Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, and could use the goodwill he built with voters to help aid a House race in the 3rd Congressional District.

Klobuchar, meanwhile, earned a surprising third place finish in the New Hampshire primary, where her friend and Senate colleague Maggie Hassan (D) could use a hand in what’s expected to be a close race. Klobuchar was in Portsmouth, N.H., to deliver a keynote address for a state Democrat’s birthday last week.

For other moderate senators, it can be more of a gamble.

​​“Are you gonna send Joe Manchin to NYC? Maybe there may be some people who want to hear from him,” said Rodell Mollineau, a political strategist who served as a senior aide to the late Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “There might be some donors. Would it attract a lot of negative attention? Probably.

“So you have to ask, ‘Am I going to raise enough money? Am I energizing enough voters and garnering enough publicity that it offsets the negative attention?”

For Biden, he said the answer becomes much simpler.

“If you believe that the president coming to your home state is going to ruin your chances, chances are you’ve already lost,” Mollineau said.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Campaign Trail Donald Trump Election 2022 Elizabeth Warren Harry Reid Joe Biden Joe Manchin Maggie Hassan Mark Kelly Pete Buttigieg Raphael Warnock Ruben Gallego
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