In between vice president and presidential nominee, Joe Biden held a different honorary title in the Democratic Party: chief surrogate.
In 2018, Biden was one of the most sought-after voices on the stump for down-ballot candidates, helping Democrats score Republican seats and win the House majority, while quieting cheers for his own eventual presidential run. Now, cautious not to replay the tactical and mathematical fiascos that made Hillary Clinton concede swaths of the country to Donald Trump, the former vice president has filled his closing itinerary with places like Southfield, Michigan and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He’ll be in Florida on Thursday and Wisconsin on Friday.
But some local party officials and strategists are hoping for more. In the final week, they are urging Biden to reach beyond top-ticket battlegrounds and are making the explicit case that his star power should also be used to help sway the Senate races that could totally realign the power structure in Washington in January.
“We’re trying to play a game without a quarterback,” said Dave Nagle, a former Democratic congressman from Iowa, in an interview late Monday morning.
There, Democratic Senate nominee Theresa Greenfield is running neck-and-neck against junior Sen. Joni Ernst, the Republican incumbent, and, according to Nagle, a Biden visit could make a significant difference in the close.
“The Biden campaign should come here for two reasons: First of all, it will help the Greenfield campaign, and secondly, it forces the GOP to spend resources here which they don’t have,” Nagle said, sharing other Democrats’ murmurs in private. “Even if he just flies into the airport and flies out, I think his presence would be a tremendous boost here.”
It appears Bidenworld was listening. By 4 p.m., his campaign announced that he would enter the state on Friday with “additional details to follow,” marking his first physical general election trip.
At the presidential level in Iowa, Biden is leading Trump by a hair in current averages, a once unfathomable possibility that gives Democrats optimism before Nov. 3. In 2016, candidate Trump won Iowa by 9 percentage points.
Greenfield has fashioned her bid around a localized version of Biden’s national unity pitch. In advertisements, she promises to work in a bipartisan manner, dovetailing with the former vice president’s argument that he is poised to bring both parties together during an extended period of hardship.
“They really are pretty well aligned in terms of what their agendas are and what their message is,” said Peter Leo, who chairs the Carroll County Democrats.
During the midterm elections, Biden successfully campaigned for Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who is generally considered the favorite to win her re-election bid for a second House term in the first congressional district. To return the favor, Finkenauer was one of Biden’s youngest and earliest endorsers ahead of the caucus. This time, Greenfield is in a much higher-profile race that some state Democrats believe could foreshadow other Midwestern outcomes on Election Day.
“President Trump isn’t coming to the Hawkeye State to offer words of comfort to those suffering, or a helping hand to the Iowans who are out of a job, or an actual plan to get the virus under control. Instead, he’s here to spread more lies about the pandemic and distract from his record of failure,” Biden said in a statement before the president’s stop on Oct. 14.
Before his expected landing, the Biden campaign had already devoted some resources to Iowa, which voted in favor of former President Barack Obama in both of his elections before handing power to Trump. Campaign organizers and surrogates have held virtual events with local officials, and Dr. Jill Biden is expected to arrive on Tuesday.
While Iowa Democrats have been granted their wish, others in states with similar down-ballot implications are still standing by.
One of those places is Maine. Republican Sen. Susan Collins has at times closely sided with Trump, while still managing to keep a distance with her embattled re-election campaign in mind. That on-again, off-again tension came into view on Sunday night, when she said she would vote against Amy Coney Barrett, the president’s latest Supreme Court nominee, because she disagreed with the timing of the confirmation.
Recent polls show Collins’ Democratic challenger, House Speaker Sara Gideon, up an average of 4 percentage points. In one survey conducted by Pan Atlantic Research earlier this month, she was up by 7 points.
“Maine—there are only five days left to vote early in-person for @SaraGideon and Democrats up and down the ballot. Sara has been a relentless champion for Mainers, and electing her is key to flipping the Senate—but we can’t do it without you,” Biden tweeted recently.
Polling and party operatives suggest that Biden is likely to win at the top of the ticket in Maine, which divides its two allotted electoral votes. Like Iowa, Jill Biden is also expected to head to the state on behalf of her husband. But the Trump campaign, despite showing signs of slippage for months, has not stopped competing to hold on to the electoral vote it won over Clinton. That sentiment was reinforced over the weekend, when Trump made a stop in Levant, a town in the second congressional district, after rallying in neighboring New Hampshire.
“The Biden campaign here is important for Speaker Gideon,” said David Farmer, a seasoned Democratic strategist and managing director of the Bernstein Shur Group. “Maine voters have had a history of splitting their ticket, particularly when it comes to Sen. Collins. She’s won by large margins because she’s been able to build in the past a coalition that included Republicans, Democrats, and independents. The key to this race for her is whether or not she can hold on to enough of those independent voters and Democratic voters in the current political environment.”
“If the vice president and Sara Gideon were at the same venue, it could have a big impact,” Farmer said.
He could also theoretically help undecided voters learn details about her record, who unlike four-term Collins, is still somewhat unknown to some residents. “If he could help elucidate the different points about the candidates, Biden could be really helpful,” said Elizabeth Rosen, the Maine communications director for NextGen America. “Biden is great at talking to people.”
With an eye towards bigger prizes, the Biden campaign recently announced plans for the former vice president to travel to Georgia and Florida, building up to what some Democrats hope will be a voyage through the Sunbelt. Georgia Senate candidate Jon Ossoff, who is strongly competing against Trump ally and first-term Republican Sen. David Perdue, said he was “encouraged” by Team Biden’s efforts to expand progress made in 2018. Making the rounds on network news, he asked for more engagement.
“We’ve been really encouraged by the investments,” Ossoff told NBC News’ Chuck Todd last week about the Biden campaign. “But the bottom line is we always need more resources for voter protection here.” On Monday, Biden endorsed both Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democratic candidate in the state’s special Senate election against Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins, both Republicans. His campaign also announced that he will speak in Warm Springs and host a “drive-in” rally in Atlanta on Tuesday.
Back in February just across the border, South Carolina Democrats proudly helped save Biden’s bid. Showing up to promote the party’s Senate nominee Jaime Harrison, who emerged as a formidable fundraiser after bringing in $57 million in the last quarter of the election, could help the ongoing effort to oust longtime Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
“Generally speaking, having a Democratic candidate for president come to South Carolina in the general election is not a good idea, but this is not a regular year,” said Don Fowler, a prominent figure in Democratic politics in the Palmetto State. “If I had to make a decision about having vice president Biden come to South Carolina in the next week, I would say do it.”
“If you focus strictly on the Senate race, I would say that would be a good idea,” he concluded.
Others, however, warned about devoting crunch time to places without much potential for presidential success. To win, Harrison is likely to need a bigger coalition of voters than just straight-ticket Democrats, they say, including those who may vote for a second Trump term.
“I’d love to see him here, but pragmatically I’d love to see him elected president of the United States,” said Dick Harpootlian, an elected official and Biden confidant. “Now, if he can make it happen, great. I’m not discouraging it, I’m just saying based on seven days left … if he were to come he’d have to come relatively soon.”
“If he could just stop here on the way down it would not hurt anything,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest mystery is Texas, where Democrats have been talking for ages about the upshot of having Biden on their turf. The Democratic National Committee has developed a “coordinated” program with the Senate and House campaign arms to help Senate nominee M.J. Hegar defeat Republican Sen. John Cornyn and several congressional candidates. In the last days, Democrats are forcefully asking for Biden to show up in person.
“Joe Biden coming to Texas would be huge,” said Kim Collins Gilby, the Democratic Party chairwoman in Williamson County. “If he could squeeze in a trip to Texas it would definitely help because we do have other congressional races,” she said, continuing that it “could really seal the deal for several people across the state.”
Some polls are more optimistic for Hegar than others. A Quinnipiac survey from mid-October shows Cornyn at 49 percent, with Hegar at 43 percent. But the latest New York Times/Siena poll released on Monday indicates a tougher reach, with Cornyn leading by 10 points.
Still, Biden’s top surrogates, including his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) are diving in after former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro begged the campaign to show some facetime, according to a story by the Dallas Morning News.
“My own sense is that Biden has a good chance of carrying the state now, it’s just a question of does he carry it by enough to drag some other folks across the finish line,” said Kier Murray, a top Democratic strategist in Houston. “A visit from him would really help to juice it even more and I think give other candidates an opportunity to be successful as well.”