Biden Leans on Pennsylvania as Campaign Season Goes Full Throttle

When President Joe Biden touches down in Pittsburgh on Monday to celebrate “the dignity of American workers,” where he’s set to participate in one of the largest and oldest Labor Day parades in the country, he will have visited Pennsylvania three times in the span of just one week.

Last week, he mounted an assault on “MAGA Republicans” in a searing speech on gun safety, crime and law enforcement that he delivered from Wilkes-Barre, where he lashed out at former President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters for defending rioters who stormed the Capitol last year, for calling to defund the FBI and for refusing to support stricter gun safety measures.

Biden resumed the aggressive offensive on Thursday evening in Philadelphia, where he warned Americans that democracy is under attack by former President Donald Trump and his “MAGA Republicans,” who he said are foisting unprecedented threats upon the ability of the United States to remain a democratic republic. The primetime speech revived the “battle for the soul of the nation” – the phrase that defined his 2020 campaign against Trump and one that’s become his administration’s trademarked rallying cry throughout its early tenure – and served to isolate Trump and his “Make America Great Again” evangelists, conservative ideologues and those dedicated to election denialism.

“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundation of our republic,” he said. “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election and they are working right now as I speak, in state after state, to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”

The trifecta of speeches kicked off the 2022 midterm elections in earnest and marked a notable shift in tone and energy as the White House seeks to outline in clear and combative terms what’s at stake in November, as well as showcase a series of legislative wins ahead of November’s elections and capitalize on a small bump in Biden’s poll numbers after months of declining approval ratings. And while the president was born in Pennsylvania and loves to tout his hard-scrabble Scranton roots, the emphasis on the Keystone State also underscores the significance of the highly competitive battleground state where a Senate seat and a governorship are up for grabs.

“He’s attempting to accomplish several things in Pennsylvania and tie together several themes and elements of where we are and where we’ve come from,” says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “In a way, he’s trying to use this as putting a bow on a package he began to pack when he first announced his candidacy.”

Democrat John Fetterman, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, is running against celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz for a seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, who is retiring – a race playing out one social media snub at a time, but also one that could decide whether the Senate remains under Democratic control or is taken by Republicans. And in the race for the governor’s mansion, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro is taking on Trump-endorsed Republican Doug Mastriano in a contest that could have significant ramifications for the 2024 election, given Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states where the secretary of state is appointed.

In addition to having Trump’s blessing, Mastriano is also among the camp of Republicans who have supported the former president’s election lies – the very folks Biden has been calling out with increasing aggressiveness.

“Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election – either they win or they were cheated,” Biden said. “And that’s where the MAGA Republicans are today.”

Speaking in Wilkes-Barre earlier this week, Biden called Shapiro “a champion for the rule of law” and Fetterman “a powerful voice for working people.”

As the midterm campaign season heats up, Biden will likely continue prioritizing states where two or more major races are at stake – such as Georgia, where Sen. Raphael Warnock is attempting to fend off GOP challenger Herschel Walker, and Democrat Stacy Abrams is hoping to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

In fact, Biden is also scheduled to appear on Labor Day in Milwaukee, where incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is attempting to fend off Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, and where Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is looking to do the same to Republican challenger Tim Michels in a gubernatorial race that could have significant implications for abortion rights.

But in Pennsylvania, the White House has keyed in on the state’s largely white, middle class and relatively young electorate that stands to benefit significantly from the spate of recent legislative wins for Democrats, including the Inflation Reduction Act, which is set to expand Medicare benefits, lower prescriptions drug prices and energy bills and add manufacturing jobs; the Safer Communities Act, which pours hundreds of billions of dollars into mental health resources and establishes more stringent background checks; and the Chips and Science Act, which is set to boost domestic chip-making and scientific research.

In addition, gas prices are down, more than 20 million student loan borrowers are set to have their debts canceled, K-12 schools are underway in the most normal back-to-school since the onset of the pandemic, Democrats are reaping the upside of the primal rage released in the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and Trump is embroiled in a Justice Department investigation over whether he mishandled classified documents.

And for a president who bills himself as the “most pro-union president” ever – and one whose early tenure has overlapped with a new wave of worker mobilization and unionization efforts, including at major companies like Kellogg’s, Starbucks and Amazon, among employees of major news conglomerates and even among congressional staffers – the Labor Day visit is just the latest example of him leaning into his organized labor roots ahead of a midterm election that will depend on the get-out-the-vote energy that unions are known for and on which Democrats often depend.

About 13% of wage and salary workers in Pennsylvania are union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – that’s up from 12% in 2019 and above the 10.3% unionization rate for the country. Biden is set to appear alongside a number of national union leaders in Pittsburgh, including including AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and United Steelworkers International President Tom Conway, as well as Fetterman and Shapiro.

What better place to strike while the iron – or in this case steel – is hot?

“Our governor’s race is not only about control of the state, but I think Biden sees it as critical to the 2024 election too because of Mastriano’s willingness to entertain challenges to the election,” says Michael Berkman, the director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State and political science professor. “So they see Pennsylvania as critical to 2024, and of course our Senate race is critical to maintaining control of the Senate.”

“It seems like a good time for him to try to regain the momentum,” Berkman says. “Joe Biden has always been a feisty campaigner and now he’s making a clear shift. We’re in full campaign season now.”

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