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Biden flexes power in primaries to boost moderates

When President Biden jumped into an Ohio congressional race to offer a surprise endorsement, progressives weren’t pleased.

In the final stretch of a Cleveland area rematch, Biden threw his weight behind Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) over Biden critic and former state Sen. Nina Turner. Turner, an ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), saw disparaging remarks she made about then-candidate Biden during the 2020 election come back to haunt her, including her comment to The Atlantic that voting for him would be equivalent to eating a “bowl of shit.”

Given the contentious nature of their relationship, many expected Democrats to back Brown over her rival. But few saw Brown’s blessing coming from Biden himself. What followed was confusion about why the president — drowning in domestic woes and low polls to match — would exert his influence like that after calling for unity.

“Party machine politics is very strong,” said Angelo Greco, a senior campaign adviser to Turner. “I don’t even think it was necessary. The machine had already fallen behind Shontel.”

While it’s common for a president to express primary preferences, progressives say he is helping to needlessly tilt the direction of the party towards the middle ahead of the midterms.

And frustration is mounting. In recent weeks, a fear has caught hold on the left that the more Biden gets involved, the less likely the chances to grow progressive membership on Capitol Hill.

“It was to make a point,” Greco said about bucking Turner. “It was signaling for the future.”

The endorsement wasn’t siloed. Leading up to a primary next Tuesday, where Democrats will face off for control of Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, Biden offered his support to Rep. Kurt Schrader, a seven-term congressman who many progressives believe is too conservative to remain in Congress. He’s facing a challenge from Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a progressive lawyer and small business owner.

While Biden suffered a personal attack from Turner, he wasn’t criticized as harshly from McLeod-Skinner, making his endorsement of her opponent more perplexing to activists and operatives.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has backed several liberal candidates this cycle, strongly condemned the president’s decision.

“Joe Biden, as president of the United States, has every right to walk softly and carry a big stick,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the group. “Instead, by endorsing Kurt Schrader and not opposing Henry Cuellar in Texas, he is saying if you cross me, I will endorse you or support you.”

“For those of us that want this president to succeed and want his agenda to succeed, this just seems like malpractice,” Green said.

Progressives view Schrader as one of the biggest obstacles to getting “Build Back Better,” Biden’s domestic spending and climate package, to become law. He was part of a coalition of moderate House members called the Problem Solvers Caucus who wanted to delink the package from Biden’s infrastructure plan, which some liberals believe sent a signal to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to oppose the bigger bill in the Senate.

Biden himself acknowledged some differences with Schrader.

“We don’t always agree, but when it has mattered most, Kurt has been there for me,” the president wrote in a statement. “In doing so, he has helped to pass much of my agenda into law — making a huge difference in the lives of the Oregonians he represents and all of America.”

In Texas, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who is facing a primary challenge from liberal activist and lawyer Jessica Cisneros, was also part of that group. Biden has not endorsed Cuellar and is not expected to, offering some temporary relief to nervous progressives. “They’re smart enough to stay away from that one,” Greco mused about White House officials.

Still, Cisneros and some aligned progressives want Biden and congressional leadership to disavow him explicitly.

“The word should go out across the land that if you are one of the 10 House Democrats that basically blocked the momentum and gave Joe Manchin an opening to do what he did, you will not be in the next Congress,” Green said. “So that every other Democrat takes notice and the next thing can go through.”

Biden has waded into only a handful of primaries during his first term, choosing the more centrist option in both Brown and Schrader. In other cases, he supported Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) in a special election to replace Interior Secretary Deb Haaland as well as former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a longtime friend, over several lesser-known contenders.

Some progressives believe that there’s a split within the White House between more left-leaning advisers and those who are closer to Biden’s moderate inclinations. Chief of staff Ron Klain is thought of as a friend to the left who has often worked as a bridge between progressives and centrist holdouts in Biden’s orbit. On the other side, Brian Deese and Susan Rice, who direct the National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council, respectively, are perceived by some to be more moderate and less likely to back progressive stances and candidates.

Some moderates say his decisions are strategic.

In their view, the president’s support has helped bolster the existing roster in Congress, giving space to Democrats who have already proven to be popular among constituents in their districts. During a tough first term, he’s shown particular deference toward incumbent Democrats who they say have voted in line with his highest priorities, including the bipartisan infrastructure package that down-ballot candidates are expected to campaign on in the fall.

“The president knows that he can count on the moderates to be with him when many on the far left will not,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Democratic think tank Third Way. “With razor-thin margins and a restive group of activists, his preference for real supporters over fair-weather fans is not hard to understand.”

Biden has notably endorsed fewer candidates than other top fixtures in the party. A tally by Axios counted Biden last on a list that includes Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in the Senate and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) in the House.

A source in the administration told The Hill that Biden will be signing off on more candidates when asked about the rationale behind getting involved in certain contests over others.

“You can expect to see some endorsements from the president moving forward,” said a Biden adviser. “He will be endorsing incumbents who have been with him on votes and supporting his agenda which is helping the American people.”

The adviser noted the scarceness of his support in Dem-on-Dem contests, drawing attention to the careful calculus that goes into each election from the top down.

“He’s always evaluating each race and request as they come in, but think it’s worth noting he hasn’t often done this, so we take that seriously but are also being strategic about what we are doing here,” the Biden adviser added.

Progressives, however, have been growing tired of the intraparty play — infrequent as it is.

They note that there is a degree of resentment building among those who would like to see the president stay neutral or take a gamble with a left-wing alternative.

“At a time when progressives have largely been carrying the water for this administration in the fight for ‘Build Back Better’ and passing the president’s agenda, we need every progressive champion possible in Congress that has our backs,” said Sawyer Hackett, a liberal strategist and senior adviser to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. 

“On issues like abortion that come down to the margins,” Hackett said, “protecting incumbents who come from safe blue districts but join Republicans on critical issues, it can feel like a stab in the back when they get support from establishment Democrats like President Biden.”

Cuellar, who has been endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C), has come under scrutiny for his position around abortion. Arguably the most conservative Democrat in the House, the Texas congressman has maintained a stance against abortion, infuriating reproductive rights advocates after a bombshell draft memo leaked from the Supreme Court and obtained by Politico indicated that a majority was planning to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“The president and the White House and Pelosi and Schumer need to think about what votes [they can] cobble together legislatively in the next few months, that impacts their political decision making,” said a progressive Democratic strategist working with down-ballot candidates this cycle.

Outside groups, however, have a different end goal in mind, the strategist said.

“Our political decision making is looking more to the future. More toward next year and after the election,” the source continued. “Who are we going to have in Congress so that this doesn’t keep happening?” 

Tags Joe Biden Kurt Schrader Nina Turner Shontel Brown

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