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Endangered House candidates wrestle with how closely to run with Biden and Trump – The Journal
Endangered House candidates wrestle with how closely to run with Biden and Trump – The Journal

FILE – Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola of Alaska speaks with reporters after delivering a speech to state lawmakers in Juneau, Alaska, on Feb. 17, 2023. As candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives vie for election in the few dozen districts that will likely determine political control of the chamber, they are focused on local issues. But they are also wrestling with how to talk about the two men at the top of the ballot this year, President Joe Biden and Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrerm File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola is gearing up for a tough re-election campaign in Alaska and talking fish. For Rep. Mark Levin, who is trying to keep his California district Republican, sand is the big issue. And while Republican Rep. Mike Garcia is campaigning in another competitive California district, he is criticizing a state gasoline tax.

As these incumbents and others fight for re-election in the few dozen districts that will likely decide the House majority this fall, they are focusing on local issues. It’s a tried-and-true political strategy, but it’s also an attempt to change the subject as candidates grapple with how to talk about the two men at the top of the ballot this year – President Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Both likely presidential candidates remain popular with their party’s core voters, but have struggled to gain the broad support that would help their party win subsequent votes, leaving many of their candidates essentially on their own.

“I’m so angry and frustrated with Joe Biden right now,” Peltola said, citing disagreements with Biden’s policies on liquefied natural gas and the border.

In 2022, she handed Alaska’s only seat in the House of Representatives to the Democrats for the first time in nearly 50 years. But to keep the seat this year, she will have to overcome headwinds at the top of the ballot box. Trump won Alaska by 10 percentage points over Biden in 2020 and is almost certain to win the state again.

For Peltola, the answer to Trump’s popularity in Alaska lies in an issue that was also at the heart of her 2022 campaign: reducing the number of fish accidentally caught by bottom trawling.

“Salmon, halibut, crab and herring really unite the people of Alaska,” she said. “It’s our identity.”

Peltola is not alone in her approach. As attention in Congress has shifted to election campaigns in recent weeks, dozens of Democrats have at times turned away from Biden on policy issues, particularly on sensitive issues such as illegal immigration and the terms of aid to Israel.

That dynamic was on clear display earlier this month when Biden announced an executive order restricting asylum applications at the border. Although Biden ceremoniously signed the proclamation in the White House East Room during a busy day on Capitol Hill, only eight members of Congress — Democrats, mostly from border states like Texas, Arizona and California — showed up.

Biden and Trump are engaged in a close election campaign, and the Democrats must strive for control of the Senate. Many Democrats therefore see the majority in the House of Representatives as a crucial safety factor in the event of a Trump presidency.

To win, Democrats are focusing on wooing independent and Republican voters, implicitly acknowledging that many of their congressional candidates are likely to do better than Biden if they want to win a congressional majority.

“We want them to stand up and voice their views on what actions we should take. In some cases they may disagree with the administration, in others they may not,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, last month. “Whatever that may be, they are raising their voices for their communities.”

While the country is currently grappling with a period of discontent over the selection of its president, political strategists also see growing potential for so-called “split-ticket voting,” especially among independent-minded voters.

“Voters may choose to vote for Trump, but they know how unstable he can be, so they will vote for a Democrat who will give him control,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and now heads the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the House have clung closely to Trump, welcoming him enthusiastically to Capitol Hill this month, and both House Speaker Mike Johnson and Representative Richard Hudson, chairman of the Republican National Campaign Committee, traveled to Florida to meet at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.

“We are committed to working very closely with him,” Hudson said at a press conference.

During his visit to the House of Representatives, Trump offered to hold telephone events for the representatives.

Several Republicans – surely aware of Trump’s penchant for denouncing dissidents – said they might welcome Trump’s help, even in districts Biden won in 2020.

Garcia, the California Republican whose district Biden won by more than 12 percentage points, called Trump’s proposal to convene a town hall meeting “a generous offer.”

“We are grateful for any help we can get,” he said.

A former U.S. Navy officer, Garcia hopes to appeal to a wide range of military personnel, veterans and what he calls “JFK Democrats,” who are liberal on social issues but conservative on economic and national security issues.

Some other Republicans, such as Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., were ambivalent about accepting the former president’s offer to do a phone rally, but he still said comparing Trump’s record in the White House to Biden’s would give him an advantage in a district Biden won in 2020.

“For me, the focus is on the direction the country is heading,” Lawler said. “I think across the country you’re seeing people pay less attention to personality and more focus on the substance of the issues.”

Recent elections give Republican candidates cause for caution. Trump has been a liability for his party in Congress, above all. When Trump ran for re-election in 2020, Democrats won the Senate and their majority in the House of Representatives. As Trump grew stronger in 2022, Republicans fell far short of expectations in winning the House. At the same time, their campaign for the Senate majority failed and was doomed in key states by candidates Trump had supported.

Republicans hope that Biden’s record will be the deciding factor in voters’ decisions, rather than what they see as Trump’s.

“Four years have passed, it may be more of a referendum on Biden,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which supports Republican lawmakers in swing districts.

However, some Democrats in swing states see Biden’s revenge against Trump as a potential political advantage. In 2022, Biden visited Levin in California to help him and won by five percentage points. Levin believes he still has a lead at the top of the ballot.

“I think my voters have strong feelings about President Biden, but they also had strong feelings about former President Trump,” Levin said. “I will always vote for a decent, successful President Biden who genuinely cares about people, rather than a narcissistic, chaotic Trump who only cares about himself.”

Levin also highlights one of Biden and Democrats’ key legislative accomplishments: the development of an interactive map showing county projects funded by the 2021 infrastructure bill. He often talks about a local project that involves replenishing sand on a beach to protect a coastal rail line.

“I hear more about this sand than you know,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Lisa Mascaro contributed.

FILE – Republican Rep. Mike Garcia of California speaks during the House Intelligence Committee’s annual public hearing on global threats at the Capitol in Washington, March 9, 2023. As candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives vie for election in the few dozen districts that will likely determine political control of the chamber, they are focused on local issues. But they are also wrestling with how to talk about the two men at the top of the ballot this year, President Joe Biden and Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)