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Biden turns in earnest to critical task of holding the Senate

In Wilkes-Barre, Pa., recently, President Biden excoriated “MAGA Republicans” who refuse to condemn political violence. In Philadelphia two days later, he said they have pushed American democracy to the brink. And in Pittsburgh, he told union workers that anyone who refuses to accept the outcome of a democratic election is not a patriot.

So began midterm campaign season for Biden, whose three visits to Pennsylvania in a single week reflect how sharply the White House is focused on keeping Democratic control of the Senate. Biden traveled last week to Wisconsin and Ohio, hitting two more Senate battlegrounds, and many more such trips are expected.

The visits to Pennsylvania in particular suggest the critical nature of the Senate control, since that state probably represents the Democrats’ greatest opportunity to flip a seat in the chamber. “It’s probably Democrats’ best — though not only — chance at a Senate pickup so far in this cycle,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist based in New York.

Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell said in an interview that he views Biden’s recent visits as not just crucial to the midterms, but also as a form of early campaigning for his own reelection. “Midterms, I think he helps, because I think turning out the base is most key to this,” Rendell said. “But, yeah, they’re looking; the White House is looking to 2024.”

Although Democrats’ prospects for keeping the House in November have improved in the eyes of operatives on both sides, most still believe Republicans are more likely to capture it. That would leave the Senate holding the balance of power between the president and House Republicans.

Control of the Senate will affect items critical to Biden’s legacy including the confirmation of more judges; the elevation of a Supreme Court justice, if a vacancy emerges on the high court; the unfolding of high-profile investigations into the president and his son Hunter Biden; the confirmation of top Biden officials; and potential Republican efforts to impeach Biden Cabinet officials and possibly the president himself.

What is less clear is whether Biden’s visits actually are boosting the Democratic candidates whose campaigns he hopes to promote. His approval ratings remain relatively low, although they have risen in recent weeks as he has racked up legislative accomplishments.

During Biden’s trips to Pittsburgh and Milwaukee on Labor Day, some Democratic hopefuls appeared by his side, while others were absent. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat vying for a U.S. Senate seat, joined Biden at a union hall, although gubernatorial hopeful Josh Shapiro was elsewhere.

“If I have to be in a foxhole, I want John Fetterman in there with me,” the president told the crowd.

Fetterman is leading Republican nominee Mehmet Oz in the polls, and his unconventional image — he sports tattoos and favors hoodies — has Democrats hoping he can pull together a broad coalition. But his recent stroke has thrown the campaign into uncertainty, while Oz, a multimillionaire television personality, has struggled to connect with blue-collar voters.

Fetterman’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But Reinish said the frequency of Biden’s visits to Pennsylvania suggests his campaign considers them beneficial. “People will take very seriously what his campaign says, and if there is any indication that it wouldn’t be helpful, that would probably force some rethinking at the White House,” Reinish said.

Republicans, though, depict Biden as too liberal for swing states including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and they are trying to use his visits against Democratic candidates in those states.

“Joe Biden and Senate Democrats’ agenda is hurting American families,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in statement on Labor Day. “Prices are at record highs, there’s a crisis at the Southern Border, and Democrats are hiring 87,000 new IRS agents to go after middle-class Americans. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin literally can’t afford to send two more radical senators to Washington.”

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The contest for the Senate is hard-fought in part because the chamber is evenly divided, with each caucus holding 50 seats and Vice President Harris casting tiebreaking votes. Democrats hope to pick up a seat in Pennsylvania and possibly knock off Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, while the GOP is targeting Democratic incumbents in the Senate including Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael G. Warnock of Georgia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.

If Republicans do reclaim the Senate majority, Biden could be almost entirely blocked from accomplishing anything legislatively in the next two years. With the GOP in charge, the confirmation of judicial or Cabinet nominees would be slowed considerably, if not killed outright.

When Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was last majority leader, he took the unorthodox step of denying nominee Merrick Garland, who was put forward by President Barack Obama, a hearing or vote for confirmation to the Supreme Court. He could take an equally hard-line approach if a Supreme Court vacancy arose in the second half of Biden’s term.

Republicans would sit atop all Senate committees, setting the agenda and issuing subpoenas. They have made clear their intention to investigate Biden’s handling of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and — more personally for the president — his son Hunter’s dealings in China and Ukraine. (A GOP-led House would conduct such investigations regardless, but Senate probes on top of that would be even more daunting.)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would chair the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and he has pledged to subpoena and investigate Anthony S. Fauci, a longtime target, for his actions as Biden’s chief medical adviser on the pandemic.

The impact of a GOP takeover could be felt even before the new Congress was seated in January. A bipartisan group of senators is crafting bills to reform the process of counting electoral college votes, codify same sex and interracial marriage rights, and pass a budget. If Republicans prevail on Nov. 8, those efforts could fall by the wayside.

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said Biden’s trips to Pennsylvania were about his presidential agenda rather than the midterms. “All I can say is: Pennsylvania is close and dear to his heart, and he is glad to be traveling there,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

But Democrats’ political focus on Pennsylvania is clear. The Democratic National Committee has invested heavily in the state, more than quadrupling its spending over the 2018 election cycle. The DNC also gives $12,500 per month to the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, a 25 percent increase over the base funding levels of 2020.

When Biden targets ‘MAGA Republicans,’ exactly whom is he talking about?

On his recent Pennsylvania trips, Biden hammered home his now-favorite political message: The Republican Party is controlled by Trump acolytes who reject democratic norms and promote political violence.

In Wilkes-Barre on Aug. 30, Biden criticized “MAGA Republicans in Congress” for refusing to condemn the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol or denounce threats against the FBI after it searched the home of former president Donald Trump.

“Did you ever think in the United States it would happen?” Biden asked, referring to the insurrection. “What I find even more incredible is the defense of it. … Police lost their lives as a result of that day.”

Biden added in Philadelphia that “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” And in Pittsburgh, he told union workers, “This is not your father’s Republican Party. This is a totally different party, man.”

Whatever his rhetoric, some Democratic candidates in battleground states have not been enthusiastic about campaigning with the president.

The White House hopes Pennsylvania will be different. Biden won the state by more than 80,000 votes and has made his “Joe from Scranton” identity a central part of his political image.

Many Pennsylvania voters like Biden personally, even if they dislike his politics, said T.J. Rooney, a former Pennsylvania Democratic Party chair and former member of the Pennsylvania House. That personal affection, he said, could move just enough voters to swing a race.

“There is a unique connection between Joe Biden and Pennsylvania,” Rooney said. “It’s a bond between the state and the president.”

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

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