President BidenJoe BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE is set to hit the campaign trail for the first time since becoming commander-in-chief on Friday with former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), posing a test for Biden’s political brand ahead of the 2021 and 2022 elections.
Biden and McAuliffe, who have been friends for more than 40 years, will appear together in the Democratic stronghold of Arlington, Va. The campaign stop will not only be an opportunity for the two centrists to take a victory lap after their 2020 and 2021 primary victories, but also for Biden to sell his administration’s agenda to the Virginia electorate ahead of November’s gubernatorial election, where McAuliffe is running against Republican Glenn Youngkin.
The president has enjoyed strong favorability ratings through his first six months in office, including among independent voters. A FiveThirtyEight average of polls shows him with a 52 percent approval rating, compared to 42 percent unfavorable. By comparison, former President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE was hovering around 40 percent approval at the same time in his first year in office.
Biden’s foray onto the campaign trail will be his first opportunity to see if his success thus far can carry over to other Democrats, and it will come alongside McAuliffe, who, similarly to Biden, fended off more progressive candidates in the primary to secure the Democratic Party nomination.
Strategists and party officials said McAuliffe’s campaign, backed by Biden, will be a good test of whether the coalition that lifted Biden into the White House last year remains intact for an off-year election.
“An off-year election is still going to be viewed as a referendum on their administration,” said Virginia-based Democratic strategist Jared Leopold. “He’s smart, I think, to lay a clear marker down here and say that he’s with McAuliffe.”
In 2019, speculation was swirling around whether McAuliffe would launch a presidential bid ahead of 2020, but the former governor ruled it out shortly before Biden formally launched his bid.
McAuliffe publicly endorsed Biden on CNN after he won the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina in 2020 and stumped for him ahead of Virginia’s Super Tuesday primary that same year.
Biden told McAuliffe last month he was "all in" on helping him in his election efforts after McAuliffe handily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
The president is expected to highlight McAuliffe’s record in the governor’s mansion from 2014 to 2018. The two men are also likely to tout investments from Biden’s American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion relief package signed into law earlier this year that included money for vaccine programs and small businesses.
“Having a win in Virginia will send a message that Biden is still popular, that his agenda is still popular, and help go towards winning the midterms,” said Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin, who was McAuliffe’s press secretary during his 2013 campaign.
Biden will also highlight how the American public benefits when the government passes legislation and works together by pointing to benefits like the child tax credit included in the American Rescue Plan, a White House official said. McAuliffe would give Biden a major ally in the governor’s mansion if elected to push his policies for the next four years.
“The president’s time is one of the most valuable commodities that a White House has. Where [Biden] is spending that time is an indication of what we see as the strength of our argument with the American people,” the White House official said.
McAuliffe and Biden may also seek to tie Youngkin to former President Trump, whose unpopularity in the Virginia suburbs helped Democrats regain control of the House in 2018.
Virginia has become more reliably blue in recent elections. Democrats have carried the state in each presidential election since 2008, and the party controls the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature.
But recent polls suggest the race could be tight, with Youngkin narrowly trailing McAuliffe by single digits.
“Virginia can still be a bellwether,” said one Democratic strategist close to the White House, noting that a number of suburban districts flipped in 2018. “You'll be able to get a real sense if the coalition that elected Biden is still intact based on the results in Virginia, I would say.”
Democrats say they are hopeful that Biden’s trip, which likely will not be the last to Virginia before November, will rally the base and attract moderate and swing voters in what is an off-election year for most of the country.
“We have to really get people engaged and get them to come out at the polls. This is an off-year. It’s a gubernatorial year, but it’s not a presidential year,” said Virginia state Sen. Barbara Favola, who represents the 31st District in Northern Virginia.
“The noise is not as high as it is in a presidential year, and we really want folks to vote,” she added.
Biden’s trip to Arlington on Friday may be more of a steppingstone for future campaign stops in competitive races. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is up for reelection in November in what is expected to be a closely watched race against Republican state lawmaker Jack Ciattarelli, and Biden is expected to be a regular presence both in campaigning and fundraising for midterm candidates.
The president’s campaign appearance for McAuliffe does present an opening for some GOP attacks. Prices are on the rise amid broader concerns about inflation, coronavirus cases are ticking up across the country, and Biden is pushing for trillions of dollars in spending on infrastructure, family care, climate initiatives and other programs in the face of a divided Congress.
“When Joe Biden is on stage with Terry McAuliffe, there’s a series of easily connective, potential risks for the Biden agenda being directly tied to the most obvious and current test case of is it working or is it not,” said Virginia-based GOP strategist Zack Roday.
Going into 2022, Biden will also have to contend with recent history showing that a first-term president’s party tends to lose seats in Congress during the midterm elections. And in Virginia, the party that has won the White House tends to lose the race for the governor’s mansion in Richmond the following year.
“Having an incumbent president campaign is always a mixed bag. In some election cycles, the party members want to keep an arm’s length from the incumbent president,” said Mark Rozell, dean and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel chair in public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Notably, McAuliffe is the only governor in the commonwealth’s recent history to win the governor’s mansion a year after his party took the White House.
While Democrats pointed to Biden’s early presence in the state is a sign of strength on their side of the ticket, Youngkin’s campaign said it painted a weaker picture.
“Terry McAuliffe must be worried about his terrible poll numbers if he’s already calling in political favors this early in the campaign,” said Youngkin’s spokeswoman Macaulay Porter. “We’ll expect he’ll bring his mentors Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonVirginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE here soon too, just like he did the first two times he ran for governor.”
Biden’s presence with McAuliffe on the campaign trail has raised questions as to whether former President Trump will stump for Youngkin. Democrats have relentlessly tied Youngkin to Trump throughout the campaign, citing Trump’s losses in the state in 2016 and 2020.
Trump has endorsed Youngkin, who in turn has expressed gratitude for the backing of the former president. But there appears to be no plans for the two to appear together ahead of November.
“This is a dare from Terry McAuliffe to Glenn Youngkin — I brought my biggest surrogate, now you bring yours,” Leopold said.