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Dec 8, 2023, 1:25pm EST
politics

Biden’s in trouble. Democratic governors say they’ll save him.

Kentucky Gov. Andrew Beshear near the end of his recent re-election campaign.
Michael Swensen/Getty Images
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The Scene

PHOENIX — President Joe Biden’s approval rating was in the 30s. He was dogged, constantly, by questions about his age. His son was about to be indicted again, right before Republicans re-launched their impeachment inquiry.

How did Democratic governors feel about this? Just great, thanks for asking.

“It’s going to be a binary choice: President Biden, or [Donald] Trump,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, in an interview after his colleagues elected him to lead the Democratic Governors Association.

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“People have underestimated him all of his life,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper of Biden — who, he said, could flip his swing state next year. “He comes out on top.”

Democrats were in a cheerful mood at the DGA’s post-election meeting, despite having lost control of Louisiana and narrowly failing to win in Mississippi. They sketched out how swing states, where Democrats like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro were popular, would re-evaluate the president; they described their plan to defend the three states where Democrats were retiring (Delaware, North Carolina, Washington) while potentially expanding the map into red states. In their eyes, the typical Democratic platform of defending abortion access, emphasizing pragmatic governance, and serving as anti-MAGA bulwarks required little tweaking after another relatively successful cycle.

“Extremism doesn’t work,” said Jennifer McCormick, a Republican-turned-Democrat running for governor of Indiana. “Teachers aren’t groomers. We’re not sharing porn in our classrooms.”

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McCormick, her state’s last elected education superintendent, said that she’d realized how alienated she was from the GOP when she heard from conservatives who wanted to “ban books.” This year, Indiana Democrats gained ground in mayoral and school board races, which to her showed that her now-former party was too obsessed with culture wars — and that, she says, will help her and help Biden. “I’m not hearing the dislike or distaste for Biden at all — at all,” she said. “I am hearing it for Trump.”

In their targeted 2023 races, Democrats ran far ahead of Biden’s numbers, just as they did in 2022. Few voters, they said, had processed the reality that Trump would almost certainly be the GOP nominee. And in six months, they predicted that voters would be thinking better of the Biden administration’s record — and the economy.

“The Fed may move as early as May,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, suggesting that interest rates could drop before the election, with mortgage rates following. “The markets are starting to game that out, [and] that’s very positive for the Biden campaign.”

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David’s view

One of the biggest questions in politics — big, but not hard to answer — is why so many voters are optimistic about their states but pessimistic about their country. Democratic governors are popular; the president that they keep trying to give credit for the post-Covid recovery is unpopular.

What explains that? The usual answer is that the president is 81, and the governors aren’t.

“I would own his age,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who handed the DGA’s chairmanship over to Walz. “I’d joke about it. I’d talk about the wisdom. I’d point to Warren Buffett, and countless other examples [of important men] who are 15 years older than he is.”

In my conversations in Phoenix — at the Biltmore Hotel, where two years ago Republicans were celebrating Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and talking about how his win could be modeled across America — no Democrat expected Biden to be more popular in 2024 than he was in 2020.

But incumbents said they could help Biden, with constant ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings that could connect last year’s infrastructure package and CHIPS bill to new jobs. Walz suggested that they might even put up signs, telling voters who got funding for the new bridge or road they were about to use. Challengers said that Biden would, at best, be a non-factor; they plan to make their races about Republican extremism and the threat to the Affordable Care Act if Republicans were to win again.

“We’re going to be able to tell the American people about what Donald Trump wants to do,” said Cooper, who planned to campaign extensively for the Democratic nominee to replace him — likely Attorney Gen. Josh Stein. After a seven-year battle, the state had finally expanded Medicaid, and they could spend a year talking about Trump’s promise to gut it, contrasting it with “Joe Biden, providing hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians a way to get healthcare through the Affordable Care Act.”

I’m not naive. It would be strange if Democrats invited reporters to a resort hotel to vent about how badly they were doing. But their 2022 and 2023 results, the first races since the end of Roe v. Wade and since Trump re-emerged as the GOP’s leader, inculcated the idea that they can polarize elections around healthcare and job growth. There’s a reason they think there’s a soft Democratic vote that doesn’t approve of Biden but will walk over coals to oppose Trump and social conservatives.

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The View From Republicans

The Republican Governors Association held its own retreat this week, and saw a different electoral map: North Carolina and Washington were highly winnable, and Democrats wouldn’t seriously be able to compete in red states during a presidential cycle.

“If the DGA wants to bring Joe Biden and his failed policies to Missouri, Montana, Indiana, and New Hampshire — go for it,” said Courtney Alexander, the RGA’s national press secretary. “Americans have had enough of the disastrous national Democrat agenda.”

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Notable

  • In Politico, Walz talked at length with Elena Schneider about the 2024 map. “When we’re running against the generic Republican, our races are always really close, but there’s no such thing,” he said. “These guys are weird.”
  • For NBC News, Alexandra Marquez talked with female Democratic governors about a new initiative to support more female candidates. Issues often pigeonholed as “women’s issues,” said Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, were “exactly what our business community cares about.”
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