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News / Nation & World

Biden is targeting Trump’s ‘extremist movement’ as he makes democracy a touchtone in reelection bid

By SEUNG MIN KIM and JONATHAN J. COOPER, SEUNG MIN KIM and JONATHAN J. COOPER, Associated Press
Published: September 28, 2023, 8:09am

PHOENIX (AP) — President Joe Biden is ready to argue “there is something dangerous happening in America” during a speech in Arizona on Thursday as he revives his warnings that Donald Trump and his allies represent an existential threat to the country’s democratic institutions.

“There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy. The MAGA movement,” Biden says in excerpts of the speech released in advance by the White House, referring Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.

Although voting in the 2024 Republican primary doesn’t begin for months, Biden’s focus reflects Trump’s status as the undisputed frontrunner for his party’s nomination despite facing four indictments, two of them related to his attempts to overturn Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

Biden’s speech is his fourth in a series of presidential addresses on the topic, a cause that is a touchstone for him as he tries to remain in office even in the face of low approval ratings and widespread concern from voters about his age, 80.

He’s also facing fresh pressure on Capitol Hill, where House Republicans are holding the first hearing in their impeachment inquiry.

On the first anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, Biden visited the Capitol and accused Trump of continuing to hold a “dagger” at democracy’s throat. Biden closed out the summer that year in the shadow of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, decrying Trumpism as a menace to democratic institutions.

And in November, as voters were casting ballots in the midterm elections, Biden again sounded a clarion call to protect democratic institutions.

The location for Thursday’s speech, as was the case for the others, was chosen for effect. It will be near Arizona State University, which houses the McCain Institute, named after the late Arizona Sen. John McCain — a friend of Biden and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who spent his public life denouncing autocrats around the globe.

“I have come to honor the McCain Institute and Library because they are home to a proud Republican who put country first,” Biden says in the excerpts. “Our commitment should be no less because democracy should unite all Americans – regardless of political affiliation.”

As Biden has tried to do in the past, Thursday’s speech is designed to avoid alienating moderate Republicans while confronting the spread of anti-democratic rhetoric.

“Not every Republican -– not even the majority of Republicans –- adhere to the extremist MAGA ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with Republicans my whole career,” Biden says. “But there is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by MAGA extremists.”

Republicans competing with Trump for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination have largely avoided challenging his election falsehoods. In addition, Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill are only becoming more emboldened as he eggs them on, including toward a looming government shutdown that appears all but inevitable.

In closed-door fundraisers, Biden has spoken at length about reelection, imploring supporters to join his effort to “literally save American democracy,” as he described it to wealthy donors this month in New York.

“I’m running because we made progress — that’s good — but because our democracy, I think, is still at risk,” Biden said.

Advisers see Biden’s continued focus on democracy as both good policy and good politics. Campaign officials have pored over the election results from last November, when candidates who denied the 2020 election results did not fare well in competitive races, and point to polling that showed democracy was a highly motivating issue for voters in 2022.

Candidates who backed Trump’s election lies and were running for statewide offices with some influence over elections — governor, secretary of state, attorney general — lost their races in every presidential battleground state.

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In few states does Biden’s message of democracy resonate more than in Arizona, which became politically competitive during Trump’s presidency after seven decades of Republican dominance. After Biden’s victory, the state was a hotbed of efforts to overturn or cast doubt on the results.

Republican state lawmakers used their subpoena power to obtain all the 2020 ballots and vote-counting machines from Maricopa County, then hired Trump supporters to conduct an unprecedented partisan review of the election. The widely mocked spectacleconfirmed Biden’s victory but fueled unfounded conspiracy theories about the election and spurred an exodus of election workers.

In the 2022 midterms, voters up and down the ballot rejected Republican candidates who repeatedly denied the results of the 2020 election. But Kari Lake, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, has never conceded her loss to now-Gov. Katie Hobbs and is expected to soon launch her a bid for the U.S. Senate. Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters and Mark Finchem, who ran for secretary of state, also repeated fraudulent election claims in their respective campaigns.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who defeated Masters, said the importance of defending democracy resonates not only with members of his own party but independents and moderate GOP voters.

“I met so many Republicans that were sick and tired of the lies about an election that was two years old,” Kelly said.

Indeed, Republicans privately concede that the election denialism rhetoric that dominated their candidates’ message — as well as the looming specter of Trump — damaged their efforts to retain the governor’s mansion and flip a hotly contested Senate seat, according to three Republican officials who worked in statewide races last cycle.

Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in next year’s Senate race, said a democracy-focused message is particularly important to two critical blocs of voters in the state: Latinos and veterans, both of whom Gallego said are uniquely affected by election denialism and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

“You know, we come from countries and experiences where democracy is very corrupt, and many of us are only one generation removed from that, but we’re close enough to see how bad it can be,” Gallego said. “And so Jan. 6 actually was particularly jarring, I think, to Latinos.”

As he pays tribute to McCain on Thursday, Biden will also announce new federal funds being directed to build the McCain Library, which the White House described as a “new multipurpose facility to provide education, work, and health monitoring programs to underserved communities in the state.”

The money comes from a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed in the early months of Biden’s presidency, and the project is in partnership with the with the McCain Institute and Arizona State University. The late senator’s wife, Cindy McCain, other members of their family, Gov. Hobbs, and the state’s representatives on Capitol Hill will be at the event commemorating McCain, “whose intolerance for the abuse of power and faith in America sets a powerful example to live by,” the White House said.

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