President Joe Biden delivered a forceful message at a Democratic National Committee reception in suburban Maryland on Thursday, outlining his administration’s accomplishments and launching verbal attacks against loyalists of former President Donald Trump — a strategy his aides believe to be the winning ticket to maintain the Democrat’s slim majority in Congress in the November midterm elections.
“Not every Republican is a MAGA Republican. Not every Republican embraces the extreme ideology,” Biden said, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. “I know because I’ve worked with them, the mainstream Republicans, and there are still a few of them left. But the extreme set of MAGA Republicans has chosen to go backwards, full of anger, violence, hate and division. And that’s what their game is.”
Democrats, independents and mainstream Republicans, Biden said, can “choose a different path” to a future of “unity and hope and some optimism.”
The speech was further evidence that the message of unity candidate Biden offered to America when he launched his campaign in April 2019, and newly elected President Biden underscored in his inauguration speech in January 2021, has steadfastly evolved to exclude MAGA Republicans.
Two months before the midterm Congressional elections, it was a clear substantiation that Biden is set on a course away from compromise toward branding MAGA Republicans as a threat to democracy, invoking harsh political rhetoric that includes accusations of Trump loyalists’ embrace of “semi-fascism.”
It is this message that Biden will espouse as he travels across the country to rally support for Democratic candidates, touting legislative victories on climate change, gun control, drug pricing and infrastructure, as well as falling gas prices and solid job creation numbers, White House officials said. He is in Ohio on Friday to promote a recently passed law intended to boost research and manufacturing of semiconductor chips, secure the supply chain and bolster the U.S. in its strategic rivalry with China, a leading chips producer.
The Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in Congress; the Senate is split 50-50, and the House of Representatives has 219 Democrats and 211 Republicans with five vacant seats.
Primary races in various states began in March. In November, all 435 House seats and 35 of the 100 Senate seats are on the ballot. Additionally, 36 out of 50 states will elect governors.
Evolution of Biden’s unity message
Upon taking his oath of office on January 20, 2021, Biden rallied the nation to come together and move past its “uncivil war.” He did not mention his predecessor by name, despite standing on the same U.S. Capitol grounds that was stormed two weeks earlier by a pro-Trump mob fueled by the 45th president’s unfounded claims that Biden had stolen the election.
Twenty months later, as Trump loyalists continue to reject the 2020 election results and try to change electoral systems in states where they hold legislative majorities, all bets are off. In an early September prime-time address in Philadelphia, in the swing state of Pennsylvania, Biden warned that Trump’s “extreme ideology” threatens the “very foundation of our republic.”
The speech revisited the “battle for the soul of the nation” theme that Biden first laid out when he announced his bid for the presidency in 2019. However, while his campaign message was about stopping Trump, whom he said would “forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation” if given another term in the White House, Biden’s 2022 speech is about excising Trumpism — a force proven to endure within the Republican Party — altogether from American politics.
There’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans,” Biden said.
Those Republicans struck back, with Donald Trump Jr. labeling the speech as “the most divisive” in American history.
Will it work?
Republicans overwhelmingly voted for Trump twice and despite Biden’s attempt to make the distinction, many of them interpreted his Philadelphia speech as an attack on all the party’s supporters, said Republican political consultant Whit Ayres.
“Consequently, the strategy is likely to be effective only with ‘Never Trump Republicans,’ who only represent about 10% of the party,” Ayres told VOA.
That 10% may be enough, however, particularly in key races. Drawing the lines and making clear that the party is now “dominated by a Trumpist MAGA cult built on authoritarian principles and election denial,” can work to convince non-MAGA Republicans and independents, making them less likely to cast a ballot for Republican candidates, said Norman Ornstein, emeritus scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, to VOA.
The strategy, for now, is bolstered by Biden’s poll numbers. After hitting a record low in July, the president’s job approval rating is up 6 percentage points to 44%, his highest in a year, according to Gallup. The increase is largely buoyed by independents.
Observers say Democrats also stand to gain by focusing on a June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court — where six out of the nine justices were appointed by Republican presidents including three by Trump — that nullified the five-decade constitutional right to abortion.
The ruling has stirred enthusiasm among voters concerned with reproductive rights, a point Biden underscored. “Republicans have awakened a powerful force in this country: women,” he said on Thursday. “Here you come.”
A messaging memo the White House shared with reporters in August shows how keen Democrats are to focus on the issue. “Republican elected officials want to — and already are in some states — strip away protections even in cases of rape, incest or where the mother will die if she is forced to carry the pregnancy to term,” wrote White House officials Kate Bedingfield and Anita Dunn.
“And they aren’t stopping there: Congressional Republicans are continuing to pursue their extreme, MAGA agenda by proposing a nationwide ban on abortion — making abortion illegal in every state in the country.”
A range of Republican lawmakers have expressed varying degrees of support on abortion restrictions, with the party’s platform stating that “the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed.”
While Democrats may be energized by the ruling on abortion and the fear of further restrictions of privacy rights, Republicans may be equally motivated by the FBI’s August search that recovered classified documents from Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s residence in Palm Beach, Florida, William Howell, Sydney Stein professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, told VOA.
Trump and Republicans have used the search and seizure to stir up outrage within their base, slamming it as a “witch hunt” and accusing Biden of weaponizing the FBI and the Department of Justice against a political opponent.
Another key factor that Democrats will need to keep in mind is the extent to which Republicans are winning statewide offices that play a role in overseeing, certifying, or defending elections. Under the U.S. federalist system, each state determines its own terms and laws on voting, thus state officials play a key role in securing practices that could benefit their party.
According to The Associated Press review, of the 86 Republican candidates vying for those positions in 37 states, one-third have echoed Trump’s lies about widespread fraud costing him reelection and supported overturning the results of the 2020 presidential race. Only 40% would directly say Biden was legitimately elected.
In American politics, the incumbent’s party almost always suffers a loss of congressional seats in midterm elections. “How great they’ll be is an open question,” Howell said.
Yet this year, Democrats are increasingly saying there may yet be a path, narrow as it may seem, to hang on to their majority by capitalizing on signs that the economy is turning around, legislative achievements, backlash to abortion restrictions and aversion to Donald Trump.
An analysis by OpenSecrets, an independent research group that tracks money in U.S. politics, showed that political groups aligned with the Democratic Party have spent nearly $44 million on advertising campaigns to boost the profile of far-right candidates across Republican primaries in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Maryland. The support is rooted in the belief that MAGA candidates will be easier to defeat in a general election.
Earlier this month a reporter asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre whether calling MAGA Republicans “extreme threats” while supporting them in primaries is “hypocritical.”
She declined to respond, saying that she “can’t talk about campaigns.”