When President Joe Biden rallied Democrats in Florida on Tuesday for a final-stretch campaign stop, he finally landed in the state his advisers have long eyed as the ideal backdrop for his warnings against “mega-MAGA” Republicans.
For months, Biden and his team had been hoping to use Florida’s constellation of Trump-aligned Republicans – including the former president himself – to crystallize Biden’s closing pitch that the election is a choice and not a referendum and galvanize Democratic voters.
“You can’t shake a stick (in Florida) without hitting a Republican that represents the MAGA extremes that the president is talking about,” a senior Biden adviser said. “So, it allows the president to really drive home what’s at stake and what the choice is.”
Biden made that argument to voters in Miami Gardens on Tuesday, a week from Election Day. The rally came as Biden sharpened his attacks on Republicans and painted an increasingly grim picture of America under a Republican majority in Congress.
The Sunshine State represents an important battleground state for the midterms and future presidential elections. But more importantly, with the president’s approval ratings underwater, Biden’s team views Florida as the perfect political backdrop to frame the midterm elections as a choice – between “extreme MAGA Republicans” and Democrats – rather than a referendum on the President and his party, Biden said Tuesday.
“This election is not a referendum. It’s a choice. It’s a choice between two vastly different visions for America,” Biden said at Florida Memorial University.
Biden also said Republicans were “coming after” the right to vote, warning once again that “democracy is on the ballot.” The president spent much of the speech painting, what he called, the “stark contrast” between Democrats and Republicans, including on issues of Social Security, Medicare, abortion and student loans.
On student loans, Biden said, “They moaned and groaned about it and they challenged it in court, which they’re going to lose.”
“Who in the hell do they think they are?” Biden added.
Biden’s team first identified Florida as an ideal launching point for his midterm message over the summer. That kickoff was delayed by the president’s Covid-19 diagnosis and scuttled again by Hurricane Ian, so instead Biden has chosen it as the location for a major rally as he makes his closing argument ahead of next week’s midterm elections.
He has drawn on Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott’s policy proposals and on threats of Republican brinkmanship over the debt ceiling to argue the GOP will hurt the economy and put popular entitlement programs at risk. And with senior-heavy Florida as the backdrop, Biden also held an official event before the rally, calling attention to Republicans’ Social Security and Medicare proposals.
“I came to Florida today to talk about two very, very, very important programs,” Biden said, speaking at a small venue in Hallandale Beach. “A great deal of people in the state are gonna be affected, and they’re under siege by our Republican friends.”
Democratic officials are under no illusions that Biden’s visit to Florida on Tuesday will drastically change the dynamics of a Senate and gubernatorial race that appear to be heading Republicans’ way, but they see a chance to nationalize the stakes of the midterms in the final stretch.
Among his chief foils is Scott, the head of Republicans’ campaign arm who had laid out a policy agenda that would put Medicare, Social Security and other government programs up for a vote every five years. The state is also home to former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, both likely 2024 presidential candidates whom Democrats have been eager to cast as the faces of a new, more extreme Republican Party.
“And by the way,” Biden said in Hallandale Beach, “this ain’t your father’s Republican Party. It’s a different deal right now. And there’s a lot of good Republicans out there, but they’re under a lot of pressure.”
A second senior Biden adviser argued that Biden’s contrast argument, with Florida as the backdrop, was “even more relevant” in the closing week of the midterms.
“As the congressional Republican plan to either eliminate Social Security and Medicare, cut Social Security and Medicare or hold it hostage to debt limit negotiations becomes even more apparent…it’s even more relevant for the President to draw that choice for the voters of Florida and the voters across the country,” the senior adviser said.
‘The most important man in the world’
Biden held the rally in Florida largely at the urging of the state’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Gov. Charlie Crist, according to two Democrats familiar with the decision.
In an interview with CNN on the eve of Biden’s visit to his state, Crist was effusive about the president’s willingness to campaign alongside him in the final stretch of the midterms, as he hopes to deny DeSantis reelection.
“He’s the most important man in the world,” Crist said. “The fact that he’s coming down to Florida with a week to go until the election says everything you need to know about how important Florida is.”
More than any other issue, Crist said he wanted Biden to zero-in on the topic of abortion rights. DeSantis’ record as governor on the issue speaks for itself, Crist said, adding that abortion rights is the “number one issue” in his race.
When Biden visited Florida last month to tour damage from Hurricane Ian, the president and DeSantis put aside their political differences to emphasize an effective response.
“We have very different political philosophies, but we’ve worked hand-in-glove,” Biden said during the stop.
But a few weeks later, the governor made clear Biden was still in his sights as a potential rival, even as he demurred about a potential national run during a debate with Crist.
“I just want to make things very, very clear,” DeSantis said. “The only worn-out, old donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist.”
A possible look at 2024
While Democratic officials insist Biden is first and foremost focused on the upcoming midterms, campaigning on behalf of the Democrat running to unseat DeSantis this week offered in part a preview of what a Biden-DeSantis matchup could look like in 2024. In a debate last week, DeSantis would not commit to a full four-year term if he were to win reelection.
“DeSantis’ first and last question is: ‘What do I need to do for DeSantis to succeed?’ That is the same conversation that Trump has with himself,” said Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee.
Still, Biden’s decision to rally in Florida – where neither the gubernatorial nor Senate race are particularly close – a week out from the election called attention to the limits of his ability to sway voters in the final stretch of the campaign. It also highlighted the extent to which Biden has struggled to convince voters to view the election as anything other than a referendum on him and his party amid economic unease.
With 56% of Americans disapproving of the job Biden has done as president, according to CNN’s Poll of Polls, he has largely been sidelined from publicly campaigning with many of the Democratic candidates in the country’s most competitive races.
Biden has chafed at suggestions he is not in demand on the campaign trail, insisting to reporters that more than a dozen different campaigns had requested him in the final stretch of the contest.
“That’s not true. There have been 15. Count, kid, count,” he said last week when a reporter suggested he hadn’t been holding many rallies in the final stretch.
Privately, Biden accepts not every Democratic candidate will welcome him as a surrogate while his approval ratings remain underwater. He has told fellow Democrats he respects their political intuition when it comes to their own races and has joked publicly he would “campaign for … or against” his preferred candidates, “whichever will help the most.”
But he has grown frustrated at coverage suggesting he is political albatross, according to people familiar with the conversations, arguing his policies – when properly explained – are widely popular with voters.
Democrats familiar with the decision-making acknowledged that Biden is not in demand from campaigns in the most competitive races. They also argued that rallies are costly and less valuable from an organizing perspective than they used to be.
A scaled-back battleground campaign
What’s clear is that Biden has watched as his reputation as a Democrat who could venture places others could not has faded. As vice president, Biden was frequently dispatched to red states and conservative districts to campaign for vulnerable members of his party, often viewed as more palatable than his then-boss, Barack Obama.
Now, it is the former president who appears to be the most sought-after Democrat for the nation’s marquee races. He held rallies in Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin over the weekend, and will visit Nevada and Arizona this week.
Biden and Obama will appear together next Saturday to boost the Senate and gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania – one place Biden, who was born there, has been welcomed.
When compared with his predecessors, Biden has maintained a lighter campaign schedule. His event Tuesday evening in Florida will be his first rally this month, compared to the 16 that then-President Obama held in October 2010 and the 26 that then-President Trump held in October 2018.
Biden has been in demand on the fundraising circuit, though, speaking at multiple high-dollar fundraisers nearly every week this fall to help the DNC raise a midterm record total of $292 million through September. Democratic officials credited Biden’s decision to share his presidential campaign list with the DNC at the start of his presidency with powering a midterm record $155 million in grassroots fundraising.
On the event side, Biden scaled back battleground state political rallies in favor of political speeches in Washington and official events where he has called attention to his accomplishments – like infrastructure and manufacturing investments – and warned of the Republican alternative.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain suggested on CNN in October that the lack of big rallies was strategic: “I don’t think rallies have proved effective for candidates in the midterms, and so we’re trying something different,” he said, noting the Obama and Trump models failed to stave of losses for their respective parties.
But as Biden prepares to hold rallies this week in New Mexico, California and Pennsylvania, a senior Biden adviser said, “There’s a time and place for rallies.”
“As you get toward the end of any election, rallies are a way to rev up the base. Rallies are a way to get out the vote,” the senior adviser said.
This story has been updated with further developments on Tuesday.
CNN’s Nikki Carvajal and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.