NORTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. — President Biden swept into Democratic strongholds of New Jersey Monday, hoping to breathe life into his “Build Back Better” agenda and the reelection bid of Gov. Phil Murphy, who is clinging to a solid but dwindling lead in a contest that will test the party’s post-Trump momentum.
Mr. Biden touted universal pre-kindergarten in this town 30 miles west of New York City before joining Mr. Murphy to tout transit upgrades near Newark — a solidly blue area the Democratic incumbent must turn out on Election Day to maintain an edge over GOP contender Jack Ciattarelli. The incumbent’s advantage has shrunk from double digits to 6 points while Washington Democrats dither over an infrastructure package and social spending plans.
“I think it shows that the party is throwing all of its big guns at this,” said Scott Lancey, a Republican who lives up the block from the East End Elementary School, which could extend its free pre-K class to 3-year-olds under Mr. Biden’s plan.
Mr. Biden will follow Monday’s appearance by campaigning Tuesday with Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race against Republican Glenn Youngkin — despite the fact the president’s approval rating is underwater in the Old Dominion.
The president won’t have to travel far. He’s crossing the Potomac River into Arlington, a liberal bastion, instead of trying to sway independents by pointing to an agenda that hasn’t made it into law.
“I think the fact that they are not traveling more than four miles into the commonwealth tells you everything you need to know about Biden’s lack of support, lack of enthusiasm across the commonwealth. The people they are talking to in Arlington are already with them,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter told The Washington Times.
That’s kind of the point. Democrats looking at the only two governor’s seats up for grabs this year see the races as a numbers game in which turnout will be critical in places that supported Mr. Biden by wide margins over then-President Donald Trump last year.
Mr. McAuliffe, who served as Virginia governor from 2014 to 2018, previewed the Biden visit as a chance to “mobilize” the grassroots, while New Jersey’s Mr. Murphy is banking on the fact there are 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans in his state. He just needs them to show up after a rocky few months for Democrats who promised big things.
“The GOP strongholds are the most rural — Warren and Sussex and the shore counties — while the Democrats own the most populous that are also big turnout machines,” said Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University.
The president won New Jersey by over 15 points and Virginia by 10 points in 2020, but is reeling nationally from the chaotic Afghanistan exit, supply chain issues and attempts to wrangle a fractured party around spending plans that would invest in physical infrastructure and social welfare.
He is still planning to pass a transportation package as well as a roughly $2 trillion social safety net bill. The proposal, though, has been watered down during negotiations through the elimination or scaling back of provisions that animated Democratic activists — including a shortening of paid leave, gutting of climate change provisions and capping the child tax credit.
“I think the fact the race is even close in New Jersey is a result of President Biden’s declining political fortunes,” said Colin Reed, a GOP strategist who worked for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, as a spokesman. “The background music of the station of the nation is inescapable and can’t be discounted. So many of the issues the country is grappling with right now aren’t partisan issues. The grocery stores are bare, gas is pushing four bucks a gallon.”
Garden State Democrats haven’t lost a gubernatorial reelection campaign since 1977. Still, many view the race as Mr. Murphy’s to lose as Mr. Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman, tries to catch up to the only incumbent governor on the ballot this year.
A Stockton University poll released at the end of September had Mr. Murphy leading, 50% to 41%, making it the first public poll to indicate the incumbent has only a single-digit lead.
An Emerson College/PIX 11 poll last week said Mr. Murphy’s lead was down to 6 points, 50% to 44%.
The Murphy campaign said it doesn’t comment on polls and that Mr. Biden was making an official White House visit, not a campaign stop, though the implications for Mr. Murphy were clear as the president pledged to deliver on their transit ambitions.
Mr. Biden said Mr. Murphy is “already leading” on the type of ambitions written into the federal plans he’s trying to get across the finish line.
“Thanks for showing the way, pal. Thanks for showing the way,” Mr. Biden said at the NJ TRANSIT Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny, New Jersey.
Mr. Murphy said Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan, which passed the Senate but sits in the House, would advance a new Portal Bridge and other “Gateway Program” projects that provide commuter service across the Hudson River to Manhattan and beyond.
“President Biden is our nation’s 46th president. The Portal Bridge was opened during the term of our 27th. Let that one sink in for a second,” Mr. Murphy said. “Now, it is time for us to give our region the modern, safe and reliable infrastructure that a 21st-century economy demands. And that’s exactly what the entirety of the Gateway Program will do. In the process, we’ll be creating good, union construction jobs whose efforts will, in turn, support even more jobs up and down the entirety of the Northeast Corridor.”
Democrats have eight days to deliver a deal, or else the party will head into Election Day on Nov. 2 empty-handed. Mr. Murphy told MSNBC that “sooner is better than later” for Democrats to pass the infrastructure bill into law.
Some voters don’t need convincing.
Matosha Williams-Rivera, holding an American flag and eagerly awaiting Mr. Biden’s arrival in North Plainfield, said Mr. Murphy is handling COVID-19 and education well and was excited to get a glimpse of Mr. Biden.
“He’s going to win. I don’t think he’s going to win, he’s going to win,” she said.
“We’re kind of a Democratic state,” he said.
David DeVico, of North Plainfield, said he thinks Mr. Ciattarelli could win given Mr. Biden’s declining approval ratings and general disgust over Democratic mandates related to COVID-19.
“One clown says ‘mandate,’ the other clown says ‘OK.’ Pretty soon, everyone is out of work,” he said. “This is still America, right? People have their freedom of choice.”
With COVID-19 fatigue and stutter steps in Washington, Democratic candidates have been forced to paint their opponents as Trump acolytes despite pledges to move beyond the polarizing ex-president.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom repeatedly invoked Mr. Trump on the way to rebuffing a recall attempt and Mr. McAuliffe has compared Mr. Youngkin’s calls for tighter election security to Mr. Trump’s unsubstantiated cries of fraud in 2020.
“They’re fixated on making their former opponents look like the former president and stuck on the issue of the Jan. 6 riot. And I think most rational people don’t like what happened [at the Capitol], but it’s not the issue that’s front and center when they wake up and live their lives,” Mr. Reed, the former Christie aide, said. “It’s hard to get your people out to vote when you haven’t done what you’re going to do.”
Mr. Ciattarelli has tried to carve a middle path between conservatives loyal to the former president and the independents he will need to pull out a win. Unlike GOP hardliners, Mr. Ciattarelli acknowledged Mr. Biden’s win last November and he joined Democrats in chastising Mr. Trump for his statement slamming former Secretary of State Colin Powell one day after his death from complications of COVID-19.
“If you’re a one-issue voter and tax is your issue, either a family or business and if that’s the only basis upon which you’re going to make a decision, we in New Jersey are probably not your state,” Mr. Murphy said at the time.
“Not your state? Who says that?” Mr. Ciattarrelli says in a campaign ad that runs frequently on Garden State airwaves.
Mr. Murphy recently told radio host Steve Adubato that he inherited the “property tax mess” and would like to reel it in but he also wants to give people a “rich basket of stuff back: education, quality of life, health care — we have the number-one-rated hospital system in America.”
In Virginia, where the governor’s race is deadlocked, the latest Monmouth University survey of voters showed Mr. Biden is underwater with 43% approving and 52% disapproving of his job performance. It marks a dip from August when 46% approved to 49% disapproved.
Mr. Biden received a thumbs up from 84% of Democrats, 35% of independents and 6% of Republicans.
Mr. McAuliffe provided additional fodder for his rivals by admitting in a recent conference call that Mr. Biden is “unpopular” in Virginia and criticizing the administration’s lack of legislative action.
Mr. Biden’s polling numbers started to go south after the nation’s chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The gridlock on Capitol Hill, the ongoing struggles with the coronavirus, and higher than normal inflation also have dented his image.
Still, Mr. Biden is stronger than Mr. Trump was at this point in his presidency, according to a Gallup tracking poll that puts Mr. Biden’s approval at 42%, and Mr. Trump’s approval at 37% in October 2017.
Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia and Mr. Murphy went on to win their respective gubernatorial races that year and Democrats followed that up in the midterms by flipping control of the House.
The New Jersey Republican Party said things are different this time around.
“I am shocked that Phil Murphy would bring Joe Biden to N.J.,” Chairman Bob Hugin said. “It reinforces all of the images that the Murphy campaign has fought to avoid: incompetence and radical policies destroying the American Dream.”
A group of people with “F— Biden” flags let the president know he wasn’t welcome in their town. They declined to comment on the record to The Washington Times but said they think former President Barack Obama, who campaigned for Mr. Murphy over the weekend, and Mr. Biden are making things worse for the incumbent.
Others were far more welcoming, raising their cell phones to get a quick snap of the president’s motorcade at the local school.
“I’m 56,” said Ms. Williams-Rivera, “and I’ve never, ever seen a president up close or any of this, coming to the town.”
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