Cozen Currents: Biden’s Second Wind

April 30, 2024

“The consensus view is that if President Biden is re-elected, he will still need to contend with a divided Congress. However, while the Democrats gaining unified control in November is not likely given the GOP’s Senate advantage, it’s also not impossible. And if it comes to fruition, Biden will be anything but a lame-duck president.”

— Howard Schweitzer, CEO, Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies

The Cozen Lens

  • Democrats would have to run the board in a bunch of vulnerable races to maintain control of the Senate. Although unlikely, it’s not impossible, as Republicans proved in the midterm elections.
  • Pennsylvania has the most electoral votes of any battleground state up for grabs in this year’s presidential election and is a must-win for President Biden.
  • With a May 10th deadline looming, Congress is looking to finally pass a five-year reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration. Still, unresolved issues remain, and lawmakers looking to use the measure as a vehicle for their pet provisions are further complicating the efforts.

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Is GOP Control of the Senate a Foregone Conclusion?

Advantage, GOP. Republicans start the race for the Senate with a major advantage, making it extremely difficult — but not impossible — that Democrats hold onto the upper chamber this year.

  • Democrats have essentially no margin for error with their current 51-49 majority. Losing even one seat — almost a certainty given Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) retirement — would lead to a 50-50 Senate with ties to be broken by the vice president. Losing just one more than that would result in a GOP majority regardless of the presidential outcome.
  • Holding on either means successfully defending every Senate seat (save already written-off West Virginia) or pulling off a long-shot victory in either red Texas or Florida. That includes two seats in states former President Trump won twice by comfortable margins: Montana and Ohio. Democrats are also defending seven more states President Biden won by single digits.
  • In essence, Democrats would have to run the board in a bunch of vulnerable races in order to retain control of the upper chamber, given the lack of offensive opportunities elsewhere. This task is difficult but the party’s done it before: in 2022, Democrats triumphed in several toss-up races and even gained a seat in Pennsylvania.

Candidate Quality. Winning requires Democratic candidates to separate themselves from Biden and establish a strong, independent brand.

  • The reason that Biden simply won’t win in Montana and Ohio and the reason these are also the top two Senate battlegrounds is the same: these are definitively red states. Surviving would require somehow winning a significant chunk of voters simultaneously voting for Trump.
  • The good news for Democrats is that there’s nobody as well-suited to the task as Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Jon Tester (D-MT) — one has to be pretty savvy to remain the only statewide Democrat, prevailing in 2018 even after both states had picked Trump two years prior. Brown has a populist, pro-worker appeal while Tester is a former farmer that is so salt-of-the-earth he lost three fingers in a childhood mechanical accident. Democrats have a stacked deck of candidates, including incumbents in every contestable race but Arizona and Michigan.
  • While the National Republican Senatorial Committee has worked hard to get good picks in place to prevent a poor roster from costing them like in 2022, some glaring weak spots remain. Full-throated MAGA candidates will be the GOP candidates in Arizona and Ohio in the form of failed 2022 gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake (R-AZ) and businessman Bernie Moreno (R-OH).  And while the remaining Republican candidates are more moderate in tone, they’re politically inexperienced and vulnerable to accusations of being wealthy carpetbaggers.

When a Plan Comes Together. Not only will the stars of the show have to succeed, but everything has to go right around them. Democrats currently have advantages in some of these “soft” factors.

  • It should go without saying that Democrats better be having a good night as a whole. Not only do their Senate hopes rest on Vice President Harris breaking ties, political outcomes are also strongly correlated and almost every key presidential swing state features a simultaneous Senate race. Split-ticket voting is on the decline, meaning that Biden’s results are a rough baseline for how each Senate candidate will do. These nominees can overachieve this baseline by running good campaigns but the less each candidate has to outperform Biden, the better, especially in red states. Tester and Brown essentially require crossover support from Trump voters to win.
  • Failing that, if the nominees aren’t getting national help from the top down from a Biden overperformance, they need to get a boost from the bottom up from strong party outcomes in their particular states and regions. Abortion rights could be exactly that boost. The week before the Arizona state Supreme Court ruled its 1864 abortion ban was enforceable, the organization behind the campaign to put abortion on the ballot in the state announced it had gathered enough signatures to qualify. In fact, in the wake of the Arizona abortion ruling, Sabato’s Crystal Ball changed its rating of the Grand Canyon State’s Senate race from Toss-up to Leans Democratic.
  • Total pledged Democratic spending towards just TV, radio, and digital advertisements for Senate races specifically is $318 million today with the election still six months away. Democratic candidates outraised their Republican counterparts in every contestable state save Wisconsin, as well as in long-shot bids in Florida and Texas. For contrast, total Republican pledged Senate spending is currently around $130 million. Additionally, state Republican parties in roughly half of the most important battleground states are awash in various degrees of dysfunction and disarray.

Keystone State is Key for Biden

From Blue Wall to Battleground. For the third election cycle in a row, Pennsylvania is crucial.

  • Along with Michigan and Wisconsin, Pennsylvania was one of the three Rust Belt “Blue Wall” states that voted Democratic in every presidential election from 1992 to 2016. Former President Trump flipped the Keystone State that year, edging out former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by 0.7 percentage points. In 2020, President Biden defeated Trump by 1.2 percentage points.
  • Pennsylvania is now one of the most contested states in the country. With 19 electoral votes, it’s the biggest prize of all of 2024’s battleground states. The Keystone State is key for Biden. If the president loses Pennsylvania, he must win at least four of the remaining five swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin, in addition to Nebraska’s second congressional district, to clinch a second term.
  • Current polling indicates that the race in Pennsylvania is extremely tight. The latest RealClearPolitics polling average has Trump up by 0.6 percentage points.

Primary Takeaways. Pennsylvania held its presidential and congressional primaries last Tuesday.

  • Despite dropping out of the races for their respective party nominations, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) still took votes in Pennsylvania’s presidential primaries. Haley won nearly 17 percent and received her strongest vote shares not only in the Philadelphia suburbs but also in the swing counties of Berks, Cumberland, Erie, and Lancaster. By contrast, Phillips only won eight percent of the vote against Biden, suggesting that Trump may have more problems locking down his party base than Biden.
  • Both Senator Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA) and former Bridgewater CEO Dave McCormick cruised to the Democratic and Republican US Senate nominations, respectively. After losing to Trump-endorsed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in the 2022 primary for the state’s other Senate seat, McCormick secured the all-valuable Trump endorsement earlier this month. Casey currently leads in polling for  the race, which is a must-win for Democrats to retain their majority. Democrats are expected to run a similar playbook as in 2022, when now-Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) painted Oz as an out-of-touch carpetbagger from New Jersey.

The Campaign Trail. Pennsylvania is likely to be the site of intense campaigning from both sides in 2024.

  • Both Biden and Trump are investing heavily in the Keystone State but in different ways. The Biden campaign is building out a ground operation to boost votes across the state, while Trump is holding rallies to energize his base.
  • Both candidates have reasons to spend a lot of time in Pennsylvania this year. Biden talks often of his Scranton, PA roots and the values he internalized there. Earlier this month, the president made a campaign visit, stopping by his childhood home and advocating for greater taxes on the wealthy. As for Trump, Pennsylvania is the closest swing state to New York and Washington, DC, where he faces court cases. As he handles his legal issues this year, Trump could more easily campaign in person in the Keystone State than some of the other battleground states.
  • Energy is likely to be a crucial issue in Pennsylvania, a major fracking state. Biden could come under fire for climate policies designed to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and memories of inflation in recent years could loom large for voters. Governor Josh Shapiro (D) last week announced a new energy plan to boost solar energy production and lower consumer costs, a potential weakness for Democrats.

Congress Looks to Land FAA Bill Finally

FAA Bill on Final Approach. After a series of short extensions, Congress is gearing up to finally pass a five-year reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ahead of a May 10th deadline.

  • The House passed its draft of the FAA reauthorization bill last July, but the legislation has had a more challenging time making progress in the Senate. The package only cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in February.
  • Due to the floor time that the measure is expected to require, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has indicated that when there is a floor vote, it will be on the compromise version. To meet this goal, committee leaders have been working behind the scenes to create that text without a formal conference committee.
  • Lawmakers have yet to indicate when the bill text will be released, but it could be as soon as this week so the Senate can begin its process. Another short-term extension is possible but is viewed as a last resort as officials hope the deadline can clinch a deal.

No Smooth Landing Yet. Despite the fast-approaching deadline, a handful of issues remain unresolved in the negotiations between House and Senate leaders.

  • One of the differences between the House and Senate drafts is whether to raise the pilot retirement age from 65 to 67. The House included language to do so, but a similar measure was defeated in a party-line vote during the Senate committee markup. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who chairs the aviation subcommittee, acknowledged that pilots can safely fly past 65 but cited a desire for the US to not act alone in this change. The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilot’s union, also opposes the provision.
  • Another point of contention is whether to add long-range flight slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The Senate bill would add five roundtrip flights per day. However, a similar amendment to add seven roundtrip flights was defeated on the House floor. The measure has pitted airlines against each other and is a significant local issue for members of Congress from Maryland and Virginia.

A Christmas Tree in May. As the last must-pass bill that is expected to pass Congress before the end of the fiscal year on September 30th, several lawmakers are looking at the FAA reauthorization bill as perhaps the best opportunity to pass their pet measures.

  • One measure that some members are looking to attach is a bill to regulate stablecoins from Reps. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) and Maxine Waters (D-CA). The two have yet to publish the revised text, but they recently met with Schumer to discuss the possibility of including their proposal. A sign that this effort could have some legs was remarks from Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-OH) indicating he was open to this idea.
  • However, Brown was willing to entertain it under the premise that it became part of a larger banking-related legislative package that also included the SAFER Banking Act, which would authorize banks to do business with marijuana businesses, and the RECOUP Act, which would claw back compensation for executives at failed banks. Arranging such a grand bargain may prove difficult with little time left and the lack of text from McHenry and Waters. Still, if the lawmakers’ measure does not secure a ride on the FAA legislation, they will likely look to try again later in the year with other vehicles.


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