Biden quickly moves to avoid the down ballot carnage that plagued Obama

When Joe Biden called Terry McAuliffe to congratulate him on winning the gubernatorial primary in Virginia last month, it didn’t take long for McAuliffe to make his ask.

“‘I need you here,’” the one-time governor and longtime Democratic fundraiser recalled telling Biden. “He said, ‘I’ll be there.’ And here he comes.”

Biden’s return to the campaign trail for a rally Friday in Northern Virginia comes as Democrats in the state furiously try to yoke McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, the hedge-fund multimillionaire Glenn Youngkin, to former President Donald Trump.

But there are far bigger stakes for the White House. Biden, a self-described party guy, is keen on avoiding the down-ballot carnage that took place under presidents Trump and Barack Obama before him. And so, as Biden’s aides and allies put it, he’s tending to the store early.

“He has always been someone who’s been out there campaigning for Democrats up and down the ticket his entire career. It’s just part of his ethos,” said Jen O’Malley Dillon, the White House deputy chief of staff and manager on Biden’s 2020 campaign. “So, he’s tasked us with making sure that we’re partners in all of that effort and making sure people have what they need.”

White House officials insist they aren’t naive about the historical challenges they face, particularly as they work to dig out of the pandemic and resulting economic downturn. But in recent months, Biden and Democrats have consolidated power and resources under the party banner and are planning to use the president’s platform to persuade voters that they’re delivering on reviving the economy, ending the coronavirus and passing trillions of dollars in spending on expanded government programs like the child tax credit.

Biden’s aides have been fielding a flurry of requests from down-ballot candidates for the president to appear alongside them at events, which party leaders said they are treating as a positive sign of his early favorability and appeal to Democrats running in tough areas.

“He’s very popular in Virginia. I think people are very, very appreciative of the work that he’s done on vaccinations. We are over the moon here in Virginia on the American Rescue Plan,” McAuliffe told POLITICO in an interview. “I want Joe Biden here. If he’ll come every week, I’d love to do an event with him somewhere around the commonwealth of Virginia.”

The Virginia governor’s race has long been a closely watched barometer of a sitting president’s standing as it comes in an off year and incumbents are prohibited from running for consecutive terms. Over the last 40 years, its results have infamously cut against the party that controls the White House. (The lone exception: McAuliffe’s own narrow win in 2013.)

But the state lurched markedly leftward during Trump’s tenure in the White House — with Republicans losing full control of the state legislature in 2019. Democrats are banking that they’ve solidified enough of those gains for McAuliffe to buck the trend once again.

For them, the president’s stop is something of a no-brainer. With McAuliffe behind him, Biden cleaned up in the presidential primary and then carried Virginia by 10 points in 2020.

“Biden is very popular in Virginia. Terry McAuliffe is very popular in Virginia,” Susan Platt, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2017 and was Biden’s chief of staff in the Senate in the 1990s, said of the visit. “And I think that most folks think, ‘Let’s just keep a good thing going.’”

The location of the rally, just over the D.C. border in Arlington, is also key for both parties. The area was emblematic of Trump and the GOP’s erosion in the suburbs. Youngkin needs to do better there if he is going to win the governorship.

“We’ve gotten our socks beat off the last couple cycles in Northern Virginia,” former Gov. Bob McDonnell, the last Republican to win the governorship in 2009, said in an interview. “I think if [Youngkin] gets between 42 to 45 percent of the vote in some of those Beltway counties, the big ones — Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William — and continues to perform equal or slightly better than previous candidates for governor in the rest of the state, he wins.”

Biden’s short trip for McAuliffe, whom he’s known for some 40 years, continues his decades of stumping on behalf of Democrats, including an active 2018 calendar where he made stops for 65 candidates across two dozen states.

“It wasn’t about whether he would help,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist and founder of Unite the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC, “it was more about trying to figure out how to help all the people he wanted to support.”

As president, Biden has sought to strengthen the Democratic National Committee, rather than branching off with his own entity as Obama did early in his tenure. He’s already transferred millions of dollars leftover from the Biden Victory Fund joint fundraising committee into the DNC, and along with Vice President Kamala Harris has been helping to bring in more. The DNC is pledging to spend at least $5 million in Virginia.

Biden’s stop in late July comes a couple weeks earlier than when Obama campaigned for Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds in 2009. Obama won by about 6 points in 2008, but McDonnell blew Deeds out of the water.

Tom Perriello, the former Virginia congressman who himself later ran in the Democratic primary for governor, said while he believes Democrats in 2009 helped to prevent an economic depression, they failed to make that case, which was evident not just in the Virginia gubernatorial elections in 2009 but the disastrous 2010 midterms.

In recent Virginia elections, however, much of the focus has been on the Republican Party and the policies it is pursuing. GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli kept his bid against McAullife close in 2013 but was weighed down by a far-right record on issues like gay rights and immigration. Republican nominee Ed Gillespie tried to avoid getting tied too closely to Trump when he ran in 2017 — he did not make a “hard ask” for Trump to campaign for him, and the former president never did — but he closed the campaign by running anti-immigrant spots that seemed pulled from the Trump playbook.

Youngkin is more of a blank slate. The first-time candidate does not come with the same kind of baggage — or benefits — of someone with a long public record, hence the constant references from Democrats about his fealty to Trump.

He was alone on the airwaves until this week and has been on TV constantly since the June 8 Democratic primary running largely positive biographical spots.

His considerable net worth and connections in the business community also means he is more-than-able to keep pace with McAuliffe, a famously prodigious fundraiser and former DNC chair with deep ties to the Clintons. Youngkin has given his campaign $12 million of his own money since he launched, but McAuliffe did significantly outraise him in June. (Youngkin did not contribute to his own campaign that month.)

McDonnell said he expected Youngkin to take advantage of several issues to try and win back voters in Northern Virginia, including fights over education curriculum in Loudoun County. Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping that the Biden visit further nationalizes the race, which could bring a return to the trend of the party out of power winning the state.

“Terry’s got to own the things that the president has announced, the things he’s done on business and debt,” McDonnell said.

But McAuliffe is also counting on the same thing — and that Biden’s visit will buoy, not sink, his comeback bid.

McAuliffe and Democrats also are eager to use the visit to contrast Biden with the other party’s leader; mainly Trump. They have ceaselessly sought to tie Youngkin to the former president and his lies about the 2020 election. Trump, who has not campaigned in-person for Youngkin, has put out multiple statements expressing his support for the Republican nominee.

McAuliffe’s opening TV ad of the general election, which started airing on Thursday, seeks to hammer that home, calling Youngkin a “loyalist” to Trump. “It’s not like I have to say anything. He’s running because of Trump,” McAuliffe said. “He has said it publicly.”

Youngkin’s campaign did not make the candidate available for an interview. “Terry McAuliffe must be worried about his terrible poll numbers if he’s already calling in political favors this early in the campaign,” Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Youngkin, said in a statement.

Youngkin accepted Trump’s endorsement. But it is notably absent from his general election TV ads. During the primary, Youngkin ran a digital ad featuring Trump praising him by name. And he recently ran a digital ad tying Trump to McAuliffe, noting that Trump donated to McAuliffe’s past campaigns that closed with the narrator saying, “C’mon McAuliffe, stop talking out of both sides of your mouth.”

McAuliffe has repeatedly tried to goad the former president into coming to the state. And Democrats are crossing their fingers that Biden going there will convince Trump to visit as well, believing he won’t be able to implicitly concede that he’s a detriment to candidates in places like Virginia. It’s the type of development that has other Republicans worried.

“If we get on national issues, I think Republicans do well,” said former Republican Gov. George Allen, who subsequently served in the Senate with Biden. “If you’re talking about personalities, Trump versus Biden, you know, everyone knows how the vote turned out there.”

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