Despite public displays of confidence, anxiety is growing within the White House and allied Democrats that Republicans will capture at least one chamber of Congress and possibly both.
But even with those fears, President Joe Biden plans to remain largely on the sidelines during the race’s final fortnight.
Republican control of Congress would dramatically complicate Biden’s next two years — and could impact whether he will seek four more. The president’s inner circle and party leaders have been hopeful that they could maintain control of the legislative branch despite historical trends suggesting otherwise. But, recently, they have begun expressing deep private concern about several races pointing to the campaign’s late-breaking focus on the economy and crime, according to more than a dozen people granted anonymity to freely discuss closed-door conversations.
Among Senate contests, Biden has voiced strong interest in seeing incumbent Republican Ron Johnson defeated in Wisconsin but officials believe that will be a struggle, worrying that Democrat Mandela Barnes may ultimately be too liberal for some of the state’s electorate. There also has been rising anxiety about Nevada, which is widely viewed as the Republicans’ best chance for a pickup as Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is in a toss-up race with Republican Adam Laxalt, an election denier.
In Pennsylvania, party officials acknowledge that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s advantage has shrunk but still saw him enter the week with a solid lead. But his shaky performance in Tuesday night’s debate raised fresh questions within the West Wing about his recovery from a recent stroke and how it could play with voters.
There has also been widespread frustration about the tentative gubernatorial campaign being run by Arizona’s Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, now locked in a dead heat with GOP nominee Kari Lake, an election denier herself and a former TV anchor who has already been bandied about as a possible 2024 GOP running mate.
Party officials privately note that retaining the House is unlikely and point to the economy, redistricting and historic headwinds as reasons for defeat.
“The atmospherics don’t feel good. We’re seeing GOP enthusiasm and an issue set dominated by the economy and inflation,” said Robert Gibbs, former press secretary to former President Barack Obama. “The wild card will be turnout — do Democrats have voters? But everyone can feel the cost of things even if it’s not the White House’s fault.”
With less than two weeks to go before the election, there are few, if any, remaining pivot points upon which individual races can turn. One remaining variable, however, is a presidential stop, which is traditionally a boon to a campaign, with a visit guaranteed to dominate local headlines and a surge in early votes or voter registrations.
But, saddled with low approval ratings, Biden has refrained from campaigning in many of the battleground states expected to determine whether his party can maintain control of either chamber. While he will embark on a late blitz across Pennsylvania — a Biden political stronghold with significant 2024 ramifications — he has largely remained in Washington, trying to frame the stakes of the race at a distance.
Biden’s travel schedule has become a delicate dance between the White House, the national party and the individual campaigns, and the result has left Air Force One largely grounded.
In the stretch run before the election, Biden has held far fewer events than his immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, did in the closing weeks of their own first midterm election season. The president is slated for a trip to upstate New York on Thursday but did not campaign last weekend — and he currently has no campaign events planned for this coming weekend, just 10 days before voters go to the polls. On both weekends, he has opted instead to remain at one of his Delaware homes.
The White House counters that Biden is playing an important role in less visible ways. They note that Biden has effectively been raising cash for Democrats and echoing the big-picture themes the party wants emphasized. White House officials are supplementing his campaign travel with events closer to home they believe still allow him to respond to Republicans and capitalize on the bully pulpit.
Biden has expressed some wish to campaign more but has bowed to arguments that he can help other ways, telling allies that he’d happily stay off the trail if that means keeping the Senate. On a recent trip out West, he skipped the two states with tight Senate races — Arizona and Nevada — after neither campaign invited him to join, according to two officials familiar with the decisions. Instead, Biden’s itinerary focused on official events and fundraising across California, Colorado and Oregon.
Aides note that Obama and Trump had tough midterm cycles despite their campaigning. They are also trying to fine-tune Biden’s closing argument for the campaign.
On Monday, he visited the national party headquarters to deliver a pep talk to workers. He instead launched into a meandering, 34-minute recitation of party accomplishments. Biden aides have been keen to tout what they achieved, not wanting to repeat past mistakes of not selling their victories.
But party pollsters have argued that boasting about achievements is tone deaf in this climate. Some in the president’s orbit have urged him to flash more empathy — normally a Biden strong suit. They say during a time of inflation and economic worry, the president should stress he understands Americans’ anxiety and pledge to do all he can to help. Aides also underscored that Biden would focus on the threats that Big Lie-backing Republicans would pose to the nation’s democracies and how GOP plans could jeopardize Social Security and Medicaid.
“Everybody wants to make it a referendum, but it’s a choice between two vastly different visions for America — significantly different,” Biden said Monday.
Over the summer, Democrats rolled off a series of legislative wins and it appeared that abortion rights may be the top electoral issue. As recently as a month ago, many Democrats felt the Senate was safe even as the House was in play. But the economy has returned to center stage.
“Republicans have momentum going into the final weeks of the election — the final weeks are dominated by talk of economy, crime and immigration, all issues that the Democrats lose on,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, an advisor to Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “Democrats were really hoping that some of our new candidates would make campaign-ending gaffes and that has not quite happened.”
Few expect a landslide. But if the GOP wins even just the House, Republicans are expected to dismiss any consideration of Biden’s domestic priorities while pushing new laws to curb immigration and spending, potentially using the debt ceiling as leverage. Republicans are also expected to launch investigations into the White House and, most notably, the president’s son.
If a GOP-led House turns up the heat on Hunter Biden, it could weigh heavily in the president’s decision to run for a second term, those close to him believe. White House officials said Biden is preparing to seek reelection but no official decision will be made until after a series of family deliberations, which are expected to begin over Thanksgiving.
And if the GOP were to take both houses of Congress, that could also be viewed as repudiation of the Biden presidency and could factor into his thinking, advisors said.
Underscoring the urgency of the Democrats position, Biden directed the Democratic National Committee on Tuesday to immediately transfer an additional $10 million to the House and Senate Democratic campaign arms and offered an additional $8 million for the two groups through fundraising in the lead up to Election Day.
But many close to Biden still believe that the Senate can be held, likely again as a 50-50 deadlock with the vice president breaking the tie. Aides believe the control will come down to two states: Georgia and Pennsylvania.
Georgia has remained stubbornly close, but party officials believe that the baggage surrounding GOP nominee Herschel Walker will lead to Sen. Raphael Warnock’s re-election, though it could very well have to be decided in a December run-off. Pennsylvania — Biden’s native state and next door to his home of Delaware — has been a state where the president has traveled frequently, with more stops planned for this week and next.
In 2020, Biden won the Great Lakes trio of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, reclaiming the former Democratic strongholds from Trump. But in the last month, he has avoided both Michigan and Wisconsin, despite them holding competitive governor and Senate races. He also has not traveled to Georgia, which has tight statehouse and Senate races and was the decisive state to give Democrats control of the upper chamber two years ago.
A stop in Georgia could be added in the race’s final fortnight, officials said. But there are no visits planned for Michigan or Wisconsin.