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OPINION: Biden-shy Dems read Texas tea leaves

Asked if he would seek President Joe Biden’s help for his Texas gubernatorial campaign, O’Rourke told reporters he was “not interested” in any kind of assist from the White House

February 23, 2022 3:05pm

Updated: February 25, 2022 7:31pm

A month ago, Beto O’Rourke did what he does best: Make headlines. It wasn’t because of his air-drumming routine, like the one that went viral when he was running for U.S. Senate. It wasn’t because of his skateboarding tricks he showed off to the press when he ran for president, either. This time, O'Rourke was national news because of an apparent snub.

Asked if he would seek President Joe Biden’s help for his Texas gubernatorial campaign, O’Rourke told reporters he was “not interested” in any kind of assist from the White House. It sounds harsh, but he isn’t alone.

As Democrats seek to defend their razor-slim congressional majorities, a number of vulnerable incumbents are keeping the president at arm’s length in reliably Republican red Texas ahead of the state’s March 1 primary, an awkward trend that is likely to continue as the midterm elections loom.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said in a statement that he would welcome an opportunity to speak with either Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris about the situation on the southwest border. “Whenever they are free,” the Texas Democrat tweeted, “my door is open.” That was Dec. 23, and the last time Cuellar mentioned the president on social media.

The Cuellar campaign has cut nine different television ads so far this year to defend his seat. Until the FBI raided his home and campaign headquarters, his re-election campaign wasn’t considered an uphill battle. Cuellar is well known and considered a political institution in Texas. Plus, Biden carried his district by seven points in 2020. But in each of those 2022 advertisements, the president is conspicuously absent. According to the national ad tracking firm AdImpact, Cuellar hasn’t mentioned Biden on broadcast television once.

Cuellar could use some star power these days. After the raid by the feds, he doubled down. “Let me be clear,” he said, after insisting he was innocent of all wrongdoing, “I'm running for reelection and I intend to win.” Challenger Jessica Cisneros has made the most of the moment, meanwhile, having previously won the endorsements of progressive heavyweights Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

All of this is unusual. Incumbent presidents are normally power players in midterm elections, and Biden has already expressed an interest in getting outside the Washington Beltway to sell his agenda and offer his party a helping hand. Judging by the radio silence from Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, though, the president might think twice before steering Air Force One toward the San Antonio suburbs.

Gonzalez is running for reelection in Texas’ 34th Congressional District after redistricting by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature softened up his old district for a Republican challenger. Like Cuellar, Gonzalez also faces a challenge from his left flank in the form of AOC-endorsed Greg Casar, a progressive member of the Austin City Council. Gonzalez has cut six television ads to stave off that primary challenge. None feature the president. And in the district he left behind, Texas CD15, front-runner Michelle Vallejo has made no mention of the president either, not even once on social media.

“All the data suggests that they're probably not making a bad strategic calculation,” said Daron Shaw, a professor in the University of Texas Department of Government. The data in question? It doesn’t look like the president has much political capital to offer in the Lone Star State. According to February polling by the University of Texas, 43% of Texans “disapprove strongly” of Biden while just 15% “approve strongly.” A closer look at a key demographic in the cross tabs could also be concerning: 42% of Hispanic voters give the president a passing grade while 38% disapprove, a difference within the poll’s margin of error.

Republicans smell blood in those numbers. They have already added each of the three Texas districts to their offensive map, and they have every intention of publicly tying vulnerable Democrats, no matter how shy, to an unpopular president. Democrats know this. They know that midterm elections seldom favor the party that controls the White House, and they are already hunkering down.

According to data compiled by Quorum, and first reported by Axios, many Democrats stopped mentioning Biden on their campaign accounts starting in September, a cold shoulder that coincided with the fallout from the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not only will the GOP do its best to ensure images of that mayhem are seared into the minds of voters, they will also make hay out of rising inflation, the economy and the pandemic. In Texas, they will shine a particularly ceaseless spotlight on the influx of migrants coming across the southern border.

Democrats won’t be able to avoid that broadside or duck Biden. They shouldn’t either, says Matt Bennett, an executive vice president of the moderate think tank Third Way. “They should embrace him,” he told RCP, both because he has genuine and substantial accomplishments and because running away from a president of your own party never works.”

The battle for the U.S. House will be fought and won in many of the districts Biden carried. The suburban voters who wrested control of the White House from Donald Trump could now end up punishing the Democrats they put in power. The thing to do then, according to Bennett, is read the polls and react accordingly: “Democrats should be focused on raising [Biden’s] approval rating, because it’s too low right now.”

A lot can change between now and November. Reading too much into radio silence from a handful of regional candidates, even those in states with early primaries like Texas, may be misleading. That is according to Chuck Rocha, a leading Democratic strategist and former adviser to Sanders, who is also urging his clients to lean into White House accomplishments, even if candidates talk about Democratic accomplishments generally rather than Biden’s achievements specifically.

“It is part of what you'd normally see in an off-year election,” Rocha said of Biden-avoidance thus far. “Barack Obama, even with his popularity, there wasn’t a ton of Barack Obama,” he added pointing back to the midterm battles of the last Democratic president. The more pressing concern for Democrats, if they are going to mitigate losses in 2022 and win the White House again in 2024? “We have to get past being scared as shit and lean into our accomplishments,” Rocha said.