PHILADELPHIA — In his telling, President Joe Biden’s political philosophy is rooted in Pennsylvania, where the son of Scranton grew up watching families struggle to make ends meet.
But as Democrats in the president’s home state choose a nominee on Tuesday for a critical U.S. Senate seat, the moderate candidate long viewed as an heir to the Biden wing of the party is at risk of being trounced by a progressive once backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
On the opposite coast, U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, the first candidate Biden endorsed this year, faces a spirited challenger from the left. And across the U.S., Democrats are grappling with questions about the party’s leadership, messaging and identity.
While much of the attention during the opening phase of the 2022 primary season has focused on former President Donald Trump ‘s grip on the Republican Party, the contests also serve as a referendum on Biden’s leadership of the Democratic Party. Few Democrats are openly criticizing the president and most are aggressively pledging support of his agenda. But there’s clear unease with the party’s direction.
In Oregon’s largely rural 5th Congressional District, Jamie McLeod-Skinner said she would “work my heart out” to support Biden’s agenda if she defeated his preferred candidate on Tuesday.
“We respect President Biden, but he simply got it wrong in this case,” she said in an interview, offering warm words for the president’s policies even as she was less complimentary of the party.
“Democrats have been very weak on our messaging and establishing a sense of focus,” McLeod-Skinner said. “This is one of the things I’m hoping to help out with.”
The White House is downplaying concerns about Biden’s leadership and intra-party divisions.
The president’s advisers note that Democrats have largely avoided the nasty and expensive personal attacks that have defined Republican primary elections across the country in recent weeks. And they point to Biden’s successful endorsement of congressional candidate Shontel Brown, who defeated a vocal Biden critic in Cleveland this month.
The stakes of this year’s primaries, meanwhile, are different for each party. While Democrats are debating their ideological and policy future, Republicans are considering some candidates with a history of racist and anti-democratic behavior. In Pennsylvania alone, the Trump-backed candidate for governor worked to overturn the results of the 2020 election. A GOP candidate gaining ground in the Senate primary once linked Islam to pedophilia.
Still, Biden will be tested this week in primary elections across five states: Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, a Biden loyalist and establishment favorite, Rep. Conor Lamb, has struggled to find his footing in a crowded Senate primary that will determine what kind of Democrat will represent the party this fall in one of its best Senate pickup opportunities.
Lamb, a fresh-faced former Marine prosecutor, became a political celebrity in 2018 by winning a special election in a working-class western Pennsylvania district long held by Republicans. Celebrated as the kind of Democrat who can appeal to voters in the middle, he enters primary day looking up in the polls toward Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a tell-it-like-it-is progressive.
In one closing campaign ad, Fetterman casts himself as, “a different kind of Democrat, candidate, campaign taking on every politician.” The 52-year-old suffered a stroke just days ahead of the primary, though his campaign said he was on his way to a “full recovery.”
Still, in style — and substance, in some cases — Fetterman is Biden’s opposite.
The 6-foot-8 former mayor has tattoos down his arms, a clean-shaven head and a goatee. He curses on social media and wears shorts practically everywhere, even in the winter.
On the campaign trail, Fetterman is more likely to criticize Democratic moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia than Biden. But in January, Fetterman initially declined an invitation to appear with the president in his Pittsburgh hometown. And he’s consistently called on Senate Democrats to to abolish the filibuster to adopt Democratic priorities on gun violence, abortion and voting rights, which is something Biden’s White House has largely resisted.
Despite bold campaign-trail promises and a Democratic-controlled Congress, the vast majority of Biden’s domestic agenda is stalled.
Fetterman’s supporters see his aggressive style and progressive politics as more likely to help Democrats break through the gridlock.
“He’s so refreshing because he is so candid,” Barbara Orr, 63, said of Fetterman ahead of a recent campaign stop. “If you saw him on TV, he’s just bold-faced saying, without couching or mincing his words, what he stands for.”
Biden’s approval ratings have hovered in the mid-40s for much of the year. Those numbers are in line with, or slightly better than, Trump’s for much of his presidency. But in contrast with Trump, Biden is showing some weakness among his party’s base.
Public polling suggests that nearly all Democrats approved of Biden when he first took office. For much of this year, however, his approval ratings among Democrats have dipped closer to 80%. While a 20-percentage-point drop doesn’t mean his party has abandoned him, Biden’s allies concede that core groups in his political coalition — including young people, voters of color and independents — are frustrated.
“You have Democrats out there telling other Democrats that Biden hasn’t done anything. And they believe it,” said veteran Democratic strategist James Carville. “We need to be more consistent and more united.”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said that Democrats would be in a better position heading into the fall if there was clearer leadership from Washington Democrats, who have struggled to coalesce behind an agenda or a message in the weeks since Biden’s domestic agenda stalled.
“It hasn’t been crystal clear up to now, but I think they’re starting to understand,” Rendell said. “I actually don’t think it’s quite as bad as everyone says it is. He’s been coming back slowly in the polls. But obviously it’d be easier if the president was popular.”
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Republicans have been too focused on their own divisive Senate primary to pay much attention to Democrats so far. But Trump-backed GOP Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz said he’s “giddy” about the prospect of a potential head-to-head matchup against Fetterman in the November general election.
“He’s basically a tall Bernie Sanders,” Oz told The Associated Press. “Everyone understands there’s a clear contrast between what a far-left liberal leader would look like and what a conservative leader who’s ‘America First’ will be able to offer.”