This election year, the Republicans working to win majorities in Congress are relying on a tried-and-true lineup of scary liberal bogeymen to gin up opposition to their Democratic rivals.
What’s most notable, however, is who has not been cast as a danger to democracy: Joe Biden.
Across the country, the Republican candidates and aligned groups in the thick of an intense, toss-up battle for control of the U.S. Senate are hardly mentioning the Democratic Party’s de facto leader in their messaging.
Instead, Republicans are saturating airwaves and social media feeds with stark, black-and-white shots of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who could find himself Senate Majority Leader next year if the GOP loses. They’re chock full of finger-wagging images of the great conservative supervillain of the last two decades, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). A virtual unknown three years ago, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is omnipresent, often pictured grinning alongside her ally, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Even the party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is sometimes easier to find in GOP attacks than the current one.
Onstage at televised debates, some GOP candidates are working harder to link their opponents to these figures than the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer. On Tuesday, Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) sparred with Mark Kelly, the Democratic nominee, in Arizona’s pivotal Senate race. McSally didn’t ignore Biden, often mentioning him in the same breath as Schumer and Pelosi, and frequently tying him to the Obama administration.
But when she really went for the jugular, McSally preferred to invoke Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI)—members of the “Squad” and the first two Muslim women in Congress—whom she mentioned a total of 10 times. McSally said Omar was Kelly’s “wingman;” she also dodged a question about her support for Trump by turning a different question on Kelly: did he support Sanders for president? (Kelly endorsed Biden.)
It’s not uncommon for campaigns to attack their rivals by lumping them in with their party’s least popular members rather than their most prominent ones, said longtime GOP strategist Rory Cooper.
But the relative absence of Biden—who is leading President Trump in most polls and could well be the next president—from GOP campaign messaging is a marked departure from how presidential nominees have been treated in recent campaigns. Clinton arrived on the 2016 trail as an easy target after decades of sustained attacks from the right. Her opponent, Trump, was inescapable in down-ballot Democratic attacks. In 2012, Obama campaigned for a second term after intense backlash to his signature health-care law; some swing-state Democratic senators wouldn’t even be seen with the sitting president that year.
Biden, meanwhile, comes to the 2020 campaign with a four-decade record in public office—yet carries relatively high approval ratings that have made it hard for attacks to land. Approval ratings in most national polls of Biden’s favorability have hovered around the 50 percent mark, compared to the low 40 percent range for Trump, and the high 30 percent to low 40 percent range for Pelosi.
That, to many Democrats, reflects an essential advantage of Biden’s candidacy. Congressional campaigns nationwide breathed a deep sigh of relief when Biden defeated Sanders, who they feared would kill their chances to reclaim the Senate if he were the nominee. And Republicans knew Biden’s victory deprived them of a potentially powerful weapon.
“Joe Biden has just never elicited that response, which is a strong reason why he won the primary in the first place,” said Cooper. “Democrats knew that his appeal is broader and they wanted the best odds of winning.”
Republicans acknowledge that invoking Biden is not a potent attack on a Democratic candidate down ballot. “The three most recognized faces of the Democrat Party are Nancy Pelosi through attrition of over 14 years of political ads, Bernie Sanders for being the soul of their ideas ,and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has this pop culture status,” a GOP operative told The Daily Beast. “Maybe in four years, Joe Biden makes the list, but it’s no secret that he’s just a placeholder for 2024.”
A Daily Beast review of available social media and YouTube advertisements from 18 GOP candidates for Senate, along with the two leading GOP outside groups, confirms that assessment. Biden is invoked negatively by at least 1of those campaign organizations, but even when he is, he is well overshadowed by other targets.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), a first-term Republican running in an unexpectedly tight race in Alaska, goes after Biden with a Facebook ad urging viewers to not let the vice president and his running-mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), “shut down Alaska’s economy.” But far more often, Sullivan’s ads cast his Democratic-backed opponent, Al Gross, as a tool of Schumer who would march to Ocasio-Cortez’s orders on the Green New Deal.
A YouTube ad from Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) raises fears that his Democratic opponent, Gov. Steve Bullock, would work with Biden to expand the government’s role in health care. Other ads, however, put Bullock side by side with Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez. Most of the attack ads on Bullock from the Senate Leadership Fund, the top Senate GOP super PAC, picture Bullock with Schumer, Pelosi, Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). An ad featuring a grinning Schumer and a cackling Pelosi proclaims that “DC liberals” convinced Bullock to run for the Senate seat.
Facebook ads from Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) spotlight Schumer and Pelosi, but ads from the Senate Leadership Fund go all-in on linking the Democratic candidate, Theresa Greenfield, to Ocasio-Cortez. Really all-in: one especially memorable spot superimposes Greenfield’s head on Ocasio-Cortez’s body. Biden is hardly anywhere to be found, even though he is not exactly running ahead of Trump in polls of the Iowa presidential race.
Notably, Biden’s absence from GOP online ads is near-total in states that the Democrat is favored to win but where Republicans are trying to hold or flip Senate seats, such as Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota.
Meanwhile, Trump is a key figure in Democratic candidates’ attacks, particularly in states where the president is weak. Some ads from Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), who is challenging Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), simply display a photo of Gardner and Trump together at a rally. And spots from Sara Gideon, the Democrat challenging Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), point out the rate at which she votes with Trump and her votes to confirm the president’s judicial nominees.
It didn’t have to be the case that Biden was so inoffensive, say some Republicans. The Trump campaign and GOP campaigns have labored to drag him down, whether it was through the allegations of sexual assault leveled on the nominee by Tara Reade, or through the Senate probe into his son’s business dealings in Ukraine, or through raising the question of his competence and mental acuity.
That the attacks haven’t stuck—or much less resonated down-ballot—speaks to Biden’s relative teflon qualities. “They have found it very hard to demonize the guy, whether it’s because he’s not a woman, or for whatever reason,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the former longtime Democratic leader. “They tried, but obviously, it’s not sticking.”
That failure is partially Trump’s own fault, Cooper suggested.
“Biden also benefits from Trump's lack of discipline,” he said. “Trump keeps making the race all about Trump so attacks on his presidential opponent don't stick, which could've lowered Biden's approvals if done correctly.”