WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden hit the phones with fellow Democrats Friday for Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock's runoff election. He fetched hot coffee for volunteers, too, and thanked them for their work. But this busy phone bank was nowhere near Georgia.
Days before Georgia polls close on Tuesday, Biden still has no plans to visit Warnock's state. Instead, the president aimed on Friday to help Democrats land their 51st Senate seat from afar as he stopped by a union hall and headlined a fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has spent millions of dollars to boost Warnock’s campaign against Republican challenger Herschel Walker.
It was the culmination of Biden’s support-from-a-distance strategy that he employed throughout the midterm elections and that his aides credit with helping his party beat expectations in key races.
“This race in Georgia … it’s really, really critical,” Biden told members of the the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who were poring over voting lists. “This is a guy who needs our help.”
The trip north to help a candidate in the South had even Biden a little mixed up, at least in his comments.
“I'm going to Georgia today,” he declared Friday morning, before quickly catching himself to say that he was headed north to do “a major fundraiser up in Boston today for our next and continued Senate candidate and senator.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., attended the phone bank and said she told Warnock that she'd do a fundraiser in her home state for him. "What you’re going to get is the best part - labor is going to be making calls for you in Georgia.”
Aides said the Boston trip was requested by Warnock’s campaign and Biden obliged, reflecting his promise to go wherever Democratic candidates wanted him in 2022.
“The president is willing to help Senator Warnock any way he can, however the senator wants him to get involved,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week. As often as not, that also meant not going where he was not wanted.
Ahead of the Nov. 8 midterms, Biden avoided wading into key Senate races in states such as Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire, where his approval ratings have trailed below his numbers nationally.
A 50-year veteran of Washington, Biden recognized that statewide candidates especially would seek to stake out distinct identities to face voters frustrated by politics in the capital city, his aides said. Meanwhile, he proved to be an in-person boon to the candidacy of Sen.-elect John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, and his video appearances with more than a dozen House candidates helped Democrats keep Republicans to the narrowest of majorities in that chamber in the upcoming Congress.
While he wasn’t in many states in person, White House aides said, Biden was talking about the issues that were relevant in those races from afar — from bringing down health care costs to combating efforts to undermine election results.
“It didn’t matter where the president went; his message very much resonated,” Jean-Pierre said, adding that Biden talked about the Democrats' legislative achievements. "And that worked. Right? That worked.”
Warnock, throughout his campaign, actually has distanced himself from Biden. That's a stark contrast to the runoff campaign after the 2020 election when Biden, as president-elect, came to the state with the Senate balance at stake and told Georgia voters they’d determine the success of his administration and agenda.
Biden told the Boston phone bank workers that an oft-repeated GOP criticism during the 2022 election was that Warnock voted with him 98% of the time. “I wouldn’t tell ’em that on the phone,” Biden quipped.
Warnock aides have said that he knew from the time of his January 2021 runoff victory that he’d win reelection in a midterm only by attracting votes from some Georgians inclined to back Republicans — and that was before generationally high inflation soared and Biden’s approval ratings tanked.
With Biden’s popularity having sagged in Georgia, Warnock framed himself as a bipartisan deal maker in Washington. In his campaign speeches he mentions Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida and various measures he’s co-sponsored with those Republican colleagues more than he mentions Biden or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. And when he does mention Biden, it’s to tell voters how much he pressured the president to follow through on his promise to ease student loan burdens.
Warnock has consistently avoided answering whether he believes Biden should run again in 2024 and whether he’d support the president if he does seek a second term.
Even as the senator welcomed former President Barack Obama to Georgia for a second time this campaign cycle on Thursday, Warnock’s campaign this week deferred questions about Biden's fundraiser to the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm.
Thus far, Warnock’s approach has paid off. He was the lone Georgia Democrat who survived to a statewide runoff, as Walker trailed all of his fellow Republicans, most notably drawing 200,000 fewer votes than Gov. Brian Kemp, who cruised to reelection.
Warnock consistently ran ahead of Biden’s 2020 percentages in urban and suburban counties and some rural areas, as well.
While Democrats have already locked in control of the Senate for another two years, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, a true majority of 51 seats would speed up the confirmation process for Biden's nominees and provide a cushion for the president.
Late Friday, at a private home in tony Beacon Hill, Biden spoke to Democratic donors about how monumental that 51st vote would be should Warnock win, particularly on big-ticket legislation that has sometimes buckled when a single senator backs away.
“We can’t have this hanging out on a thread, every single vote we have,” he said.
Barrow reported from Atlanta.