President Joe Biden’s last-minute rally with Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday in Long Beach may not influence the outcome of the California recall election, but offering the Democrat a short-term electoral boost is only part of the president’s calculation.
Despite crises such as the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the persistent pandemic, Biden could not miss showing support for an ally in a time of need, Democrats say, because failure to do so would risk alienating friends in an era when even off-year elections can reverberate nationally.
“When we’re in power, you can’t stand still and say, ‘oh, we’ve got a lot going on, we’ll get to politics when it comes around,’” said Bradley Beychok, a veteran Democratic strategist. “This is a four-year political fight, and I think this White House realizes that.”
The campaign stopnonetheless has earned fierce criticism from Republicans, who said the president should instead spend his time helping evacuate remaining Americans from Afghanistan. And it comes at a time when Biden’s own approval ratings have dropped, in part due to the withdrawal and a still-pervasive coronavirus pandemic.
“Biden’s decision to campaign in California alongside the worst governor in the state’s history is a direct insult to the parents and loved ones of the California children who are stranded behind enemy lines in Afghanistan as a result of this botched withdrawal,” said Emma Vaughn, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “Those children and their families deserve better, Californians deserve better, and Americans deserve better.”
When Biden arrives in the Los Angeles area Monday, he’ll find a race that has changed markedly in recent weeks. Opposition to the recall has grown, according to polls, due to greater engagement from once-apathetic Democratic voters and the emergence of a Republican front-runner, talk show host Larry Elder, who has served as a foil for Newsom’s attacks.
White House officials stressed that Biden wanted to show support for a governor they consider an ally on a wide-range of issues, including the pandemic and combating climate change.
They also point out that the campaign rally comes after the president on Monday plans to visit the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and survey wildfire damagein the Sacramento area.
“You have to do a range of things as president,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said about Biden’s trip.
Psaki added that Biden remains popular in California, a state that he won by nearly 30 points.
“And certainly we don’t go campaign in states where we aren’t wanted,” Psaki told reporters, “but hopefully this will be helpful to the efforts of the governor.”
Newsom has a comfortable, and growing, lead in the recall race. That was not the case when the Biden visit was initially under discussion. For much of August,polling indicated a close election.
A resounding win by Newsom could help Democrats competing in next year’s midterm elections defeat Republican arguments on vaccine mandates and other COVID prevention efforts, said Sean Clegg, a senior adviser to Newsom’s campaign.
“We have an opportunity here to send a national message in a decisive way,” Clegg said. “I think what we’re showing with this campaign is that you can wake up the base, you can wake up that blue giant.”
He said Biden will be helpful with voters who tend to cast ballots in presidential elections and are generally under age 50. That includes Millennials, GenZers, women and Latino and African American voters.
“It’s the hardest to kind of penetrate their information bubble, and when the president comes into the state, everyone pays attention and you have the best chance to have that heard,” he said.
Republicans were more skeptical of Biden’s impact, citing the late timeframe.
“Anyone who intends to vote at this point isn’t going to turn in their ballot because Joe Biden came to town,” said Joanna Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the Republican Governors Association.
Democrats say that the recent rise in visibility of issues important to their base have helped the governor make his closing argument. A Supreme Court decision earlier this month that allowed Texas to implement new abortion restrictions, for instance, has sent a jolt through rank-and-file Democrats.
“You have to understand that this recall campaign is about California and it’s about a whole lot more. They’re thinking that if they can get this done in California, they can go around the country and do this,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at a Bay Area rally for Newsom.
The recall election could have political implications beyond California, Democrats argue. If Newsom has a surprise defeat, emboldened Republicans could push to recall Democratic officials in other states, they said.
Amanda Renteria, the former national political director to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, warned that if a tactic like the recall election suppresses turnout among core Democratic constituencies, “You bet it will be tried again in the midterms, in the non-midterms, creating special elections somewhere else.”