Biden’s leadership of Democrats will be tested in upcoming primaries

PHILADELPHIA — In his account, President Joe Biden’s political philosophy is rooted in Pennsylvania, where Scranton’s son grew up watching families struggle to make ends meet.

On the opposite coast, U.S. Representative Kurt Schrader of Oregon, the first Biden-backed candidate this year, faces a fiery challenger from the left. And across the United States, Democrats are grappling with questions about party direction, messaging and identity.

While much of the attention during the opening phase of the 2022 primary season has focused on former President Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican Party, the contests also serve as a referendum on Biden’s leadership of the Democratic Party. Few Democrats openly criticize the president and most aggressively pledge support for his agenda. But there is obvious unease with the party leadership.

In Oregon’s largely rural 5th Congressional District, Jamie McLeod-Skinner said she would “work with all my heart” to support Biden’s agenda if she beats her favorite candidate on Tuesday.

“We respect President Biden, but he just got it wrong in this case,” she said in an interview, offering warm words for the president’s policies even if she was less complimentary to the party.

“Democrats have been very weak on our messaging and establishing a sense of focus,” McLeod-Skinner said. “That’s one of the things I hope to help with.”

The White House is downplaying concerns about Biden’s leadership and intra-party divisions.

Still, Biden will be tested this week in primaries in five states: Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon and Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, a Biden loyalist and establishment favorite, Rep. Conor Lamb, has struggled to find his footing in a crowded Senate primary that will determine what kind of Democrat will represent the party this fall in one of its best senate pickup opportunities.

Lamb, a fresh-faced former Navy prosecutor, rose to political stardom in 2018 when he won a special election in a working-class western Pennsylvania district long held by Republicans. Celebrated as the kind of Democrat who can appeal to middle voters, he enters primary day looking in the polls toward Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a say-it-like progressive.

In a campaign closing ad, Fetterman casts himself as “a different kind of Democrat, candidate, campaign going up against every politician.” The 52-year-old suffered a stroke days before the primary, although his campaign said he was on the way to a “full recovery”.

Yet in style — and substance, in some cases — Fetterman is the opposite of Biden.

The 6-foot-8 former mayor has tattoos on his arms, a clean-shaven head and a goatee. He swears on social media and wears shorts practically everywhere, even in the winter.

On the campaign trail, Fetterman is more likely to criticize Democratic moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia than Biden. But in January, Fetterman initially declined an invitation to appear with the president in his hometown of Pittsburgh. And he has consistently called on Senate Democrats to scrap the filibuster to embrace Democratic priorities on gun violence, abortion and voting rights, something Biden’s White House has largely resisted.

Despite bold campaign promises and a Democratic-controlled Congress, the vast majority of Biden’s national agenda has stalled.

Fetterman’s supporters see his aggressive style and progressive politics as more likely to help Democrats break the deadlock.

“He’s so refreshing because he’s so outspoken,” Barbara Orr, 63, said of Fetterman ahead of a recent campaign stoppage. “If you’ve seen him on TV, he’s just saying, without lying or mincing words, what he stands for.”

Biden’s approval ratings hovered in the mid-40s for much of the year. Those numbers are in line with or slightly better than Trump’s for much of his presidency. But unlike Trump, Biden shows some weakness within his party’s base.

Public polls suggest nearly all Democrats endorsed Biden when he first took office. For much of this year, however, his approval ratings among Democrats have hovered near 80%. While a 20-percentage-point drop doesn’t mean his party has given up on him, Biden’s allies admit major groups in his political coalition — including young people, voters of color and independents — are frustrated .

“You have Democrats out there telling other Democrats that Biden did nothing. And they believe it,” veteran Democratic strategist James Carville said. “We need to be more cohesive and more united.”

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said Democrats would be in a better position heading into the fall if there was clearer leadership from Democrats in Washington, who have struggled to unite behind an agenda or a message in the weeks since Biden’s national agenda was blocked.

“It hasn’t been clear until now, but I think they’re starting to understand,” Rendell said. “Actually, I don’t think it’s as bad as everyone says. He’s slowly coming back into the But obviously it would be easier if the president was popular.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Republicans have been too focused on their own Senate primary to pay much attention to Democrats so far. But Trump-backed GOP Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz said he was “dizzy” at the prospect of a potential showdown with Fetterman in November’s general election.

“He’s basically a great Bernie Sanders,” Oz told The Associated Press. “Everyone understands that there is a stark contrast between what a far-left liberal leader would look like and what a conservative leader who is ‘America First’ will be able to deliver.”


Miller reported from Washington.

ABC News

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