When Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden helped orchestrate an endorsement from former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) over the summer, he welcomed one of the most loyal and prominent anti-Trump Republicans into his network of swing-state apostates.
Now, the former senator is in sprint mode. With less than two weeks to go until Nov. 3, Flake says he has stepped up his Capitol Hill outreach to former congressional colleagues whom he and members of the Biden campaign believe are worth talking to before Election Day.
In an interview with The Daily Beast on Tuesday afternoon, Flake shared that he is in regular contact with the former vice president’s campaign and that he remains cautiously optimistic more like-minded Republican officials may share his pro-Biden preference in the home stretch.
“We still have two weeks and I think we should expect to see that great migration continue,” Flake said.
The network of individuals supporting Biden across party lines is now running on all cylinders, with members of the diverse movement hoping to seize on the latest wave of Trump burnout and use the polling deficit and pandemic to fine-tune their closing pitch to voters. In essence, supporting Biden is “the only way to save the party,” as one former statewide Republican elected official put it.
It’s a plea Flake and dozens of other distinguished Republicans have been making for months. And one that remains equally pertinent now, as Trump continues to dip in two electoral benchmarks: enthusiasm and money. “If you believe that we need a strong Republican Party in the future, as I do,” he said, “then we need to elect Joe Biden because another four years of President Trump and the party will be next to irrelevant.”
The timing is ripe for such a case, with two Hill Republicans distancing themselves in tone from Trump last week. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) bashed the president during a constituent call, according to The Washington Examiner, in which he talked about the likelihood of Trump losing the election after ticking through a list of issues, including “the way he kisses dictators’ butts.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), facing his own re-election battle, separately tried to space himself out from Trump, recounting to the editorial board of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram instances where he’s conflicted with his positions.
Several of the pro-Biden Republicans interviewed by The Daily Beast said that Trump’s mismanagement of COVID-19 is the top messaging priority they’re sharing with their GOP counterparts. Reminding fellow Republican luminaries and rank-and-file voters that the United States trails other nations in its coronavirus strategy is a convincing argument to those still contemplating sitting it out, they say.
“Although this election is principally about character, Mr. Trump’s approach to COVID-19 has been a disaster for the country and is the issue most likely to bring about his downfall,” said John Negroponte, the former director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush and one of Biden’s highest-profile national security endorsers.
The Biden campaign has focused its election gameplan on Trump’s virus approach for nine months. When Biden preaches science and health, the president downplays or avoids the subjects altogether. On Monday evening, they released a digital advertisement alerting voters to that fact.
“Joe Biden, on the other hand, is in many ways the opposite of Trump. He is experienced in governmental affairs, he is decent and wise and, when elected, will seek to represent the entirety of the American people. He will also work effectively to dig us out of the hole created by COVID-19, which has been exacerbated by Mr. Trump’s irresponsible and inconsistent policies,” Negroponte said.
Bush-era Republicans are arguably the most ardent foot soldiers on the right helping to elect Biden. While the former president has stayed out of public view, many of his administration’s top cheerleaders are enthusiastically and, as the clock runs out, urgently asking friends for their trust that Biden has always been and will remain a moderate Democrat if elected to the White House.
“I don’t believe for once that Joe Biden is going to be a Republican president, but he’s a decent human being,” said Rosario Marin, who served as Treasurer in the Bush 43 administration. “I am absolutely positive that he has many faults and he’s not going to be governing as a conservative Republican. But he listens; as opposed to right now, we have one voice.”
Conservative media force Bill Kristol has played a big role in shaping the anti-Trump playbook from the outside. Republican Voters Against Trump, an offshoot of his organization Defending Democracy Together, has been noticed for its captivating video testimonials with voters airing their criticisms about the commander-in-chief. One of the most prominent examples came from Olivia Troye, a former senior adviser for the White House coronavirus task force who spoke out against the president.
Kristol told The Daily Beast that the plan is to continue pushing the group’s message in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, and Florida, with “a little bit in Texas,” which the Biden campaign has prudently worked to flip blue. The effort is still to remind a movable group of voters that “it’s OK to change your mind” after voting for Trump in 2016, Kristol said, and that a second term under the current president would be worse than the first. “Biden's an acceptable alternative,” he said of the framing.
Consistent with prior internal discussions, the Biden campaign agrees with their conservative allies on the basic talking points. “Republicans are backing Biden because they trust that he will be a president for all Americans, no matter party affiliation,” said Biden campaign spokeswoman Rosemary Boeglin. “Joe has a long track record of reaching across the aisle to get results for the American people, and as president, he will bring back the spirit of bipartisanship, not just in the nation’s capital, but in states and communities across our nation that have been afflicted by Donald Trump’s reckless attempts to divide us.”
The campaign noted that it has unveiled several advertisements targeted to “historically Republican voters” throughout the general election, including one this week titled “I can’t” featuring a salon owner in Phoenix, Arizona who says “there’s never been more divisiveness in this country” and that “it’s frightening and sad.” They’ve also sent an array of surrogates to Fox News, including former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The Trump campaign, for their part, waved off the impact of the Republican defections. Biden is “welcome to seek that support from a bunch of irrelevant, failed former Republicans, but with no campaign infrastructure, that seems like a doomed effort,” said Trump campaign deputy national press secretary Samantha Zager. “Additionally, our data shows President Trump has 95 percent approval among Republicans, so we wish them luck with their mission.”
Other Republicans like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a CNN contributor, and former Tea Party Rep. Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), are working different aspects of the media circuit. Walsh, one of Trump’s only primary opponents, is using the conservative talk radio program he jumpstarted in June as a way to go “right into like the heart of the enemy” and make the argument to listeners that Trump is going to “give you four more fucking years of chaos.” Meanwhile, Flake has granted interviews at the Biden campaign’s request.
The influx of cross-party activity comes with a deliberate public relations push from inside the Biden operation. On Tuesday morning, the former highest-ranking national party official telegraphed that he will support Biden’s bid against Trump, adding weight to what started as a covert courtship among Republicans in late Spring and has grown to have an oversized force.
“I’m a lifelong Republican and I’m still a Republican, but this ballot is how we restore the soul of our nation, electing a good man, Joe Biden, and a trailblazer, Kamala Harris, and ensure an orderly transfer of power,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele in an ad released by the pro-Biden GOP group the Lincoln Project with an adjoining op-ed, using rhetoric from Biden’s oft-repeated promise to restore the “soul of our nation.”
“America or Trump? I choose America,” Steele concluded.
The campaign then sent out a press release stating that Biden has “welcomed support from the alumni of Senator Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign” as well as “more than 200 alumni of former President George W. Bush’s administration.” On Wednesday, Cindy McCain, widow of the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) who endorsed Biden in September, is hosting a joint digital fundraiser with Dr. Jill Biden as part of their get-out-the-vote work around national unity, according to a teaser for the event. And earlier this week, Politico reported that the team in charge of Biden’s White House transition “is vetting a handful of Republicans for potential Cabinet positions,” a move that’s historically been considered a standard practice, but one that could alienate some skeptical progressives.
Flake largely hedged when asked about the prospect of serving in a Biden administration if offered the chance, but did not shut it down entirely. Instead, he stressed that’s not why he’s promoting the former vice president heavily in the final days. “I don’t expect any role,” he said.
Biden, for now, appears to be unconcerned with the possibility of making the left feel marginalized. When he recently dropped applause lines on the campaign trail reminding voters that he is not a “socialist,” some in the party’s left corner saw it as a preview of what to fear from a Biden administration. In an attempt to counter that tension, the campaign keeps a full schedule with its progressive surrogates. On Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will host a rally in Pennsylvania.
In weighing the potential to estrange parts of the left, Biden’s Republican endorsers largely argued it actually helps them send a positive reassurance to on-the-fence voters.
“There are many who just are afraid of voting for Democrats and are afraid of it being too liberal,” said former New Jersey Republican Governor Christie Whitman, speaking about her final ask. “He’s a decent fellow, he’s a man who is strong, as he has shown by pushing back against the far-left so far of his party.”