President Donald Trump is lunching with Senate Republicans in the Capitol and prodding them to launch subpoenas against his enemies. Joe Biden is stuck in Delaware and has yet to hold even a conference call with House or Senate Democrats.
At this point in a typical presidential campaign, Biden probably would have already visited with his old Senate colleagues and the House majority in the Capitol to begin the long and sometimes difficult process of syncing up his message with congressional Democrats and battleground candidates. But the coronavirus pandemic has changed all that — and given Trump an opening to unite his party at a critical moment.
Democrats say Senate Republicans will regret gluing themselves to Trump in their bid to hold on to their majority. But some also acknowledge Biden needs to do more to boost coordination with the lawmakers who will be some of his most important surrogates, especially amid a pandemic that has Biden live-streaming from his basement.
“He should have a call if he wants to and give us a message and what he thinks is right,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is planning to endorse Biden and suggested the former vice president have a weekly or biweekly call or Zoom meeting with congressional Democrats. “What we’re trying to do to counter [Trump], what our message is, that would be great stuff. Senate Democrats, House Democrats, the whole thing.”
Indeed, Biden’s outreach to congressional Democrats is nascent at best, according to interviews with more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers and aides.
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), co-chair for Biden’s campaign, said he and other top Biden officials have just started calling members for their input. And Richmond dismissed the notion that Biden’s at a disadvantage, saying the old rules of campaigning don’t apply at the moment. Despite being sequestered at home, Biden is currently leading in most polls.
“We’re in a different time and things are moving at a different pace,” Richmond said in an interview. “But virtual meetings and all those things are occurring."
One of Biden’s biggest strengths is his relationships with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and rank-and-file Democrats, kinships formed over Biden’s 36 years as a senator and eight years as vice president. Democrats say those relationships mean that Biden and his party are already on the same page, particularly when compared with how often Trump undercuts GOP leadership’s plans.
But though Trump was not a politician before becoming president, he’s done more to cultivate relationships and loyalty among congressional Republicans than his immediate predecessors. On Wednesday, a GOP-led Senate committee authorized subpoenas in a probe that could hit Biden’s son, Hunter, for his work at a Ukrainian oil company. On Tuesday, Trump visited Senate Republicans and accused the Obama administration of targeting Trump’s campaign — allegations GOP chairmen are now actively investigating.
In contrast, Democrats still say they are in piecemeal coordination with Biden, and his team is listening to their advice. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) had a lengthy call with Biden last week, and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) is offering guidance to the campaign on how to talk to swing voters about sportsman issues and land use in the interior West.
“There wasn’t a lot of input from 2016, I will tell you. In 2020, they are seeking our input,” Heinrich said, contrasting Hillary Clinton’s campaign with Biden’s.
Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, recently held a conference call with centrist House Democrats. The campaign has been trading talking points with Pelosi’s office in recent weeks.
In a statement on Wednesday night, Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said: “When it comes to dealing with Congress, Joe Biden would be one of the most experienced presidents in American history. He's in regular contact with key members of both chambers and has a deep working relationship with both Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer.“
Biden and Pelosi have talked “several times” since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to a senior Democratic aide. And Schumer and Biden served together and talk regularly, particularly during the March negotiations over the $2 trillion coronavirus bill. Most Democrats say the sporadic outreach won’t ultimately sink Biden’s campaign as an alternative to Trump, who faces sagging approval ratings.
“All of us wish we weren’t constrained by the restrictions of virtual communication. We all look forward to a time we can actually be together again,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “But I don’t think it’s doing any lasting damage.”
For the gregarious and voluble Biden, his self-quarantine for the past few months has been a particularly difficult adjustment. Instead of chummy huddles with long-time allies on the Hill, Biden has mostly been relegated to television appearances from a makeshift studio in his Delaware basement. Even once he formally becomes nominee, it’s not clear he’ll be able to tour swing states with incumbent House and Senate Democrats and insurgent candidates trying to oust Republicans.
Senior GOP officials say Biden’s isolation will chip away at his ability to court both Democratic officials and voters.
“It really is a disadvantage to be holed up in your basement indefinitely,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican. “These circumstances make it especially hard for someone like Biden. He’s kind of a glad-hander and sort of needs to be out there. And this reinforces the narrative that is out there about them. That he’s, you know, not up to doing this.”
To Republicans, all that time spent with Trump at the White House, Camp David and the golf course will pay dividends in November. At the same time, it could also anchor the party’s vulnerable lawmakers to Trump if the bottom falls out of his re-election campaign. But after everyone except Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) acquitted Trump of impeachment, there may be no other way for Republicans to run.
“I see Donald Trump as desperate. And that his coming over here to glad-hand in person with a bunch of Republicans as the ultimate act of desperation,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “The way I see it, Biden’s doing what he should be doing.”
Allies of the former vice president point out that the pandemic has upended all parts of American life, including the traditional aspects of a presidential campaign — from personal meetings with key elected officials to weekly rallies with thousands of supporters. Biden also hasn’t been able to get critical facetime with the freshman Democrats, most of them centrists in GOP-leaning districts, who delivered Pelosi the House in 2018. Ditto Democrats challenging Republican senators in swing states.
Unlike Pelosi and Schumer, many of those new Democrats don’t know Biden from his decades in Congress or have only had limited interactions with him on the campaign and fundraising circuits. And yet he is now the leader of the Democratic Party and will appear on the same ticket with them come November.
House Democrats’ campaign arm has been advising vulnerable incumbents for months to build out their own distinctive campaigns, regardless of who the eventual presidential nominee would be. That way those lawmakers can tie themselves as much or as little to Biden as they want, even if the top of the ticket might weigh heavily on their results.
Still, Biden has managed to make a memorable impression on some freshmen.
In 2011, years before he ran for Congress, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) hosted an event for Biden in which the then-vice president spent more time with the food service workers who had set up the catering operation in Phillips’ garage than he did with the events’ attendees.
“That left an indelible mark on me, the way that he treated the people who really matter that day,” Phillips said in an interview. “I respect him and he’s an honorable and decent man. I’ll never forget it — I’ve got pictures of it in fact. He left a mark on me that day, he really did.”
John Bresnahan and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.