Jun 2, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Some Democrats try to Biden-proof their 2024 campaigns

Illustration of President Joe Biden under a glass dome

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo:Hector Vivas/Getty Images/Getty Images

To some Democrats running in key congressional races, the 2024 election is about abortion rights, MAGA extremism, inflation, the border, local issues — anything except President Biden.

Why it matters: Biden may get a bump in support because of Donald Trump's felony conviction, but several Democratic lawmakers tell Axios the president's middling poll numbers to date have made distinguishing themselves from him a priority.

  • There is "more distancing now as his numbers continue to tank," said one House Democrat seeking re-election in a competitive district.
  • The member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid thoughts on Biden's campaign, said they are "pretty much washing my hands of his campaign."
  • Another House Democrat said there is "always an element where you run your own race," but "now it's even more pronounced given the president's weakness."

Driving the news: Democratic incumbents, candidates and operatives described to Axios a dynamic in which many in tight congressional races are maintaining their independence from Biden without publicly rejecting him.

  • Tim Persico, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said many Democrats are "not putting Biden at the center of their campaigns" because "they all have their own records ... they're not really connected to Biden."
  • Democratic strategist Eric Koch said Democrats are "running against a series of weirdos, anti-abortion nuts and MAGA kooks — so it's no surprise that they are focusing their attacks on them and highlighting local issues."

Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) told Axios his focus is "not going to be on any other races up and down the ticket ... our race will be able to stand independently."

  • Will Rollins, the Democrat challenging Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), said that for Democrats in swing districts, "making the point about a dysfunctional Congress is much more important than what's happening at the top of the ticket."
  • "The expectation is ... just keep your head down as it relates to Biden," one House Democrat said. "No one is out there saying, 'Please, please come to my district.' "

What they're saying: "Joe Biden created 15 million jobs, capped the price of insulin at $35 and made health care more affordable than ever," Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz told Axios.

  • "That record of historic results for the American people is what the president and Democrats across the country will be running on in November."
  • He added: "Republicans are stuck defending Trump's promises to cut taxes for the billionaires at the expense of the middle class and ban abortion nationwide."

Zoom in: But some swing-district Democrats are latching onto opportunities to display a break from Biden on policy — particularly by pushing for stricter border security.

  • It's a strategy many Democrats credit for Rep. Tom Suozzi's (D-N.Y.) special election victory in February.
  • A group of 15 vulnerable House Democrats sent Biden a letter last month urging him to take action on the border. Michigan Democratic candidate Curtis Hertel sent a similar letter this week.
  • Several operatives for Democrats in some of the most competitive races stressed to Axios that their bosses don't have to talk up their independence from Biden, because it's already well established.

What to watch: The prospect of Biden visiting their districts is a sensitive topic for many Democratic candidates.

  • Sue Altman, who is challenging Rep. Tom Kean Jr. (R-N.J.), told Axios: "I haven't really even thought about the president. I know he'll have his own busy schedule, but as far as it pertains to certain members of Congress who I align with ideologically, I'm thrilled to have them here."
  • Another House Democrat described a recent "moment of alarm that [Biden] was going to come to my district."

On the other hand: Some Democrats are looking at the glass as half full — welcoming Biden to their districts and expressing hope his poll numbers improve.

  • Biden has campaigned with a multitude of Democrats: Pappas said he greeted the president on recent a visit to open a campaign office, saying New Hampshire "is a state where we love to welcome national political leaders, regardless of who they are."
  • "I think Joe Biden has a heck of a case to make for another term," said Rep. Chris Deluzio (D-Penn.), vowing to "help Joe Biden in western Pennsylvania."
  • Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-N.C.), who is retiring, told Axios: "The polling isn't great, but it's early and I think a lot of people just aren't paying attention."
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