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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Dec. 5, 2023

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Democratic rising stars rally around Biden’s reelection. They’re also eyeing 2028 bids of their own

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Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., walks on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Washington.
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., walks on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON (AP) — Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro is set to address presidential primary voters in New Hampshire on Saturday.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is working to strengthen Democratic parties across the Midwest. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom was the Biden campaign’s surrogate during the second Republican presidential debate this week — and he’s agreed to a one-on-one debate against a top GOP presidential contender.

As Biden faces concerns, including from voters in his own party, about his prospects in a grueling reelection campaign, a new generation of high-profile Democrats are fanning out for the 80-year-old president. Those close to the ambitious Democrats insist they are focused squarely on the 2024 campaign when Biden may face a tough rematch against Donald Trump.

But in building their national profiles, they’re also positioning themselves for what could be a contentious 2028 primary — and giving the party something of an insurance policy in case they are suddenly needed next year.

“We’ve got a lot of talent in our party, and that talent is unified behind the reelection of President Joe Biden,” Shapiro said in an interview. “And I’m excited for the next couple of years, and for the future of our party. I think we’re in a strong position.”

Biden announced his reelection bid in April and his allies insist that only an unforeseen physical challenge could force him from the race.

He’s taking all the usual steps to support a growing reelection effort, including adding staff to his Wilmington, Delaware-based campaign that now employs about 50 people. The campaign is also launching a spree of advertising with the Democratic National Committee. The push includes a months-long, $25 million digital and television blitz focused on issues ranging from the administration’s economic policies to efforts to protect abortion rights. The pieces are airing in battleground states such as Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

The administration has a record they’re eager to run on, including signing into law major investments in health care, climate change, pandemic relief and the economy. Inflation is ticking down, while the unemployment rate and economic growth remain strong. The GOP’s efforts to roll back abortion rights have repelled many voters, even in Republican-leaning states. And he’s issuing increasingly dire warnings about the implications of a Trump win for American democracy, delivering a passionate speech on the issue on Thursday in Arizona.

“We should all remember, democracies don’t have to die at the end of a rifle,” Biden said. “They can die when people are silent, when they fail to stand up or condemn threats to democracy, when people are willing to give away that which is most precious to them because they feel frustrated, disillusioned, tired, alienated.”

For now, such efforts haven’t lifted Biden’s weak approval ratings or neutralized the political fallout from an evolving criminal case against his son. And it’s done little to address what may be the president’s most potent vulnerability: his age. Set to turn 81 in November, he would be 86 at the end of a second term. About three-quarters of Americans — 77% — said Biden is too old to be effective for another four years, according to a poll released last month from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. That view was held by 89% of Republicans and, notably, 69% of Democrats.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. is a progressive leader who has already spoken to New Hampshire’s presidential primary voters three times this year. In an interview, he warned Democrats against promoting a message of “triumphalism” in 2024 by simply touting Biden’s accomplishments.

“The American dream has slipped away for too many Americans. The working class has been shafted and there’s still a lot of anger out there,” Khanna said. “We’re trying to turn the ship, but it’s it’s gonna require bolder and more focused action to help the working class.”

The conversation among Democrats is blunter in private. On the sidelines of a recent meeting of the National Governors Association in New Hampshire, several senior Democratic aides were overheard by a reporter discussing the type of candidate who could stand in for Biden if needed.

And at least one major political group aligned with Democrats is in the process of formulating a contingency plan in the unlikely event that Biden is not on the ballot, according to a top official with that group who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning. The group is also developing options for the possibility that Trump, the overwhelming front-runner in the GOP primary, is not the Republican nominee.

The Biden reelection campaign said any group questioning the president being on the 2024 ballot isn’t aligned with anyone of consequence in the Democratic Party.

“I don’t have any indication — it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist — that the White House is thinking about not running,” said veteran Democratic strategist James Carville. “Having said that, every poll is worse.”

The chatter is fueled by a lack of confidence among some donors and party officials in Vice President Kamala Harris as a Biden successor. She has struggled with weak ratings of her own.

In New Hampshire, Democratic officials still angry that Biden moved South Carolina ahead of the state on the party’s 2024 presidential primary calendar have been increasingly willing to welcome would-be alternatives to the state.

Former state House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, a longtime Biden ally, is openly encouraging the president to back out of the 2024 campaign. The Democratic Party “absolutely” needs to have a contingency, Shurtleff said, adding that he and other Democrats want more options beyond Harris.

“Something’s got to be done. It can’t be just that we’ll anoint the vice president if the president has to step down or something happens,” Shurtleff said. “I’m still hoping that (Biden) will say, ‘I won’t run after all.’”

Biden has long cast himself as uniquely positioned to defeat Trump. Democrats united behind him in the 2020 campaign largely for that reason. But after years in which the party struggled to identity and elevate future leaders, Democrats now have one of their deepest benches in recent memory thanks largely to a wave of high-profile governors finding success in last fall’s midterm elections.

Shapiro, 50, who stepped into the Pennsylvania governor’s office just eight months ago, will serve as the keynote speaker at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s annual convention on Saturday. It’ll be his first time in the state for any political reason since 2015. He said he’s eager to promote the pragmatic “GSD” attitude — short for “get stuff done” — that guides his leadership in the key presidential swing state.

“Right now, there’s a cynicism that’s gripped our politics. And much of that cynicism is due to people not feeling progress, not seeing I should say deliverables for them that make their lives better,” Shapiro said in an interview. “We’re taking a different approach in Pennsylvania.”

Asked about Biden, he said he was “proud” to support the president in 2024.

“I’ll do the work that’s asked of me to help him win reelection,” Shapiro said.

In California, the term-limited Newsom was the Biden campaign’s chief spokesman at Wednesday’s GOP presidential primary debate. He was given time on each of the national television networks to respond to the Republican message and held court with dozens of reporters in the post-debate spin room.

In an interview, Newsom acknowledged the strength of his party’s rising class of presidential prospects.

“The bench, it’s next level, I mean, you’re gonna have, I don’t know, three debate stages in the next presidential election. I mean, I don’t know how the heck they’re gonna figure that out,” he said.

The California governor also said “there’s no question” Biden would be the party’s nominee in 2024.

“Let’s just stop naval gazing about this. Let’s go. As Democrats, let’s enthusiastically go,” Newsom said of rallying behind Biden. “The real show is around the corner and its time for us to show up now and stop these conversations, these internal circular conversations about where we are situationally, and make the case.”

Yet Newsom, who leaves office at the end of 2026, is stoking questions about his own presidential aspirations by agreeing to debate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is a prominent Republican presidential candidate. Newsom said the debate, to be hosted by Fox News’ Sean Hannity, has been confirmed for November.

They have not yet set a location, but have agreed that the event wouldn’t take place in a key presidential primary state like Iowa or New Hampshire, Newsom said.

Biden has successfully fended off serious Democratic rivals in part by keeping potential challengers close by. He’s assembled a national advisory board including Newsom, Shapiro, Khanna, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore. Whitmer is serving as one of the Biden’s national campaign co-chairs. The campaign says that, while the goal is to further Biden’s reelection, it is also helping the president realize his promise of being a “bridge” to a future generation of Democrats.

Many of the party’s rising stars are building on their personal, political, fundraising and organizing networks to promote the president, said Carla Frank, director of the national advisory board and surrogate operations. She said members “are going to speak to different communities in different ways, and be able to put their unique voices to various issues.”

“We have an opportunity to work with these leaders, integrate them into our broad campaign structure and build a strong party with them,” said Frank, who is also a former White House deputy political director. “But, in return, they are uplifting our message, which is the broad party message, rather than just trying to get them in line.”

Whitmer launched a political action committee, the Fight Like Hell PAC, in June to help Democrats across the country while expanding her national footprint. That same month, an aide shared an article on social media entitled, “Why Gretchen Whitmer Has What It Takes for a White House Run.”

In October, she’ll headline a major fundraising dinner for the Minnesota Democratic Party.

Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said the PAC would release its first series of endorsements in the coming weeks as she works to raise money for the Biden campaign and help “shore up the base in the Midwest.”

“The governor laid out a pretty good blueprint for how you should engage with voters in the Midwest in the last election,” Leddy said, noting that Whitmer made Biden’s accomplishments “front and center” in her winning reelection campaign.

Pritzker, Illinois’ Democratic governor, is making moves as well.

Having just begun his second term, Pritzker is scheduled to headline an upcoming fundraiser for Wisconsin Democrats. His team says he’ll also continue to seek out opportunities to boost candidates that defend abortion rights and causes across the country as he stumps for Biden.

Pritzker is uniquely positioned to maintain a high profile for the party in 2024 as a leader of the state that will host the Democratic National Convention next summer. And while he is presumed to be running for a third term in 2026, Pritzker stoked speculation about his presidential ambitions by campaigning in New Hampshire last summer on behalf of local Democrats.

In New Hampshire, which traditionally hosts one of the nation’s opening presidential primary contest, Shurtleff said he’s looking forward to getting to know the new generation of Democratic leaders.

“There are a lot of good qualified people — governors, possibly members of Congress — who could possibly run,” he said. “I don’t look at Joe Biden being a strong candidate. … There’s a lot of negatives here. And that’s what people are thinking.”

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