Moderate Democrats see path for Biden

Before Joe Cunningham won his race to represent the South Carolina Lowcountry, a coastal House district not held by a Democrat in nearly 40 years, former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed him, campaigned for him — and picked up his tab for fried chicken and a jalapeño-flecked waffle at Page’s Okra Grill in Mount Pleasant.

The day after Cunningham’s upset victory, Biden called to congratulate him.

There aren’t too many nationally recognized Democrats who can go to a district that President Donald Trump won by over a dozen points. But Biden is one them. While all of the major potential presidential candidates crisscrossed the country in 2018 to help Democrats take back the House, Biden was unique in that he could go almost anywhere.

“I think he has a way of talking to people and connecting with folks,” said Cunningham in an interview. “He knows South Carolina well.”

For moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill facing re-election in competitive races, the idea of Biden running for president is comforting. They know that nominating a presidential candidate too far to the left — even if it is what the base craves in a primary — could jeopardize their own political futures.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who won his race by just a few points in a state Trump won by more than 40, said moderate Democrats “are very concerned.”

“If they are going to be stamped and perceived to be the far left, then that creates a tremendous challenge for them,” he said.

So far, Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have dominated the race’s initial polls from states holding the opening contests, representing two distinct parts of a party torn both by ideology and tactics. Sanders’ style of politics — including support for single-payer health care and a “Green New Deal” for environmental policy — has defined the Democratic debate since he lost the primary to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

While Biden recognizes the wide income gap in the country, and called for making college free, he would not be expected to wage class warfare like Sanders, a democratic socialist, in a presidential run.

That cheers Democrats who worry that Sanders could imperil their re-election races either by becoming the nominee himself or pulling the rest of the presidential candidates to the left.

‘I do want to see some form of moderation’

Rep. Katie Hill of California, a leader of the House Democratic freshman class, has already endorsed her home state senator, Kamala Harris. She’s impressed by Harris’ way of being both “progressive” and “pragmatic.”

Hill said that she understood that a presidential candidate must carefully navigate the primary and general elections to win. But she is also worried that her own candidate now sounds too liberal.

“I do want to see some form of moderation,” said Hill. “Her talking points have clearly moved to the left.”

“I respect her and I understand, but I am also a little bit like … it makes me a little bit nervous,” she added.

Biden doesn’t have that problem.

Some freshmen congressmen who played a pivotal role in helping Democrats win the House majority believe the presidential field needs centrist candidates like Biden to give voice to the concerns of voters in swing states and districts. They think the Delaware senator for 36 years, and President Barack Obama’s Vice President for another eight, could appeal to voters in the Midwest that Clinton lost in 2016.

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania told CNN that she is “excited to see somebody like Mr. Biden get into the race.” The congresswoman emphasized that it’s important for the party to have a “pragmatic voice” in the 2020 campaign, though she added that there are other candidates who could also represent that type of political approach.

“I think that two-thirds of the people who were elected in this last Congress as Democrats as freshmen represent those sort of purple places like where I come from where a more pragmatic voice needs to be heard,” she said. “I think that the path to the presidency for a Democrat needs to go through places like Pennsylvania or Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio.”

Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, said “six or seven” presidential candidates have been in his state in recent weeks, he’d met “virtually” all of them and that Biden would do well after coming to the state so many times over the years, including to campaign for him in 2018.

“I think the vice president has a very strong record on fighting for working families,” Horsford said. “He would make a very strong showing should he decide to get into the race.”

While many Democratic lawmakers are still drawn to the glow of that Obama-Biden ticket, their record — expanding health care insurance to millions through the Affordable Care Act, passing a stimulus package to dig the country out from the Great Recession, overhauling the financial services industry through the Dodd-Frank Act, creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to protect young immigrants who illegally came to the country — will be both applauded and scrutinized by Democratic primary voters.

Sen. Chris Coons, who took Biden’s Delaware seat, said Biden “bridges” the “fake divide between progressive left and centrist Democrats.”

Even though Biden has yet to announce a run, Coons and Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware said last week that it looks like he will.

“I probably want him to run for president more than he wants to run — and I think he’s almost there,” Carper said.

“I am optimistic that Joe Biden will soon announce his candidacy to be president,” Coons added.

‘The healthiest field of candidates we’ve had in my lifetime’

If he decided to run, Biden would join a dozen current and former Democratic officials shooting for the highest public office, all of whom are vying for the support of those from early state primaries.

“It’s going to be the healthiest field of candidates we’ve had in my lifetime,” said Cunningham, who has begun to develop relationships with other presidential candidates besides Biden. He and his wife Amanda have received advice on how to cope with the complete lifestyle change that comes with being elected to Congress from former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and his wife Amy. He also held an event for veterans with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg last year.

Rather than take the most liberal track in a crowded Democratic primary, Cunningham advocated to follow the path struck by his fellow new House Democrats who won in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

“I think you take a look at those elections, the common thread was pragmatic, common sense,” he added. “In our race, putting Lowcountry over party and putting people over politics.”

One of those establishment-favored candidates who emerged from a fierce Democratic primary, freshman Rep. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, said that Biden had a path to the presidency, but noted that some Democrats will make the argument that it’s time for a new generation to take the White House.

“There are a lot of voters that respect the service of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders but are looking at some of the younger candidates who represent a fresh perspective,” he said.

If Biden ran, younger Democratic opponents — Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, O’Rourke, Buttigieg, etc. — could all highlight his pre-Obama era views on banking and criminal justice legislation, and his handling of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearing, to say he is out of step with party.

When asked about those who helped him during the 2018 campaign, Pappas noted Booker’s event at the University of New Hampshire brought out a “huge crowd” and registered “a lot” of voters.

“I think voters are interested in (candidates’) positions on a variety of issues, but I think the bottom line continues to be they want a winner,” Pappas said.