Democrats in the House and Senate say Joe Biden’s sprawling presidential campaign is taking relations with lawmakers much more seriously in recent weeks, a stark difference from his early days as the unofficial nominee — and they’re welcoming the turnaround.
Earlier this year, Democrats were openly warring over who would be the party’s nominee to take on President Donald Trump — with lingering fears about 2016 and the party’s ideological DNA looming large. Then as the coronavirus brought the country to a standstill, Democrats received little guidance from Biden, setting off alarms on Capitol Hill.
But now Democrats say there’s been a rush of outreach from Biden’s team over the last month — from weekly calls with House chiefs of staff to a surrogate team that helps set up interviews to seeking out lawmakers about the VP vetting process. And even some of Biden’s toughest former critics in the party are praising him.
It’s the latest sign that the Democratic Party has begun not just to unite to defeat Trump but to assemble a governing coalition amid growing hopes Biden wins the White House this fall — a party-wide cohesion that was absent in 2016 and could bolster Democrats as they prepare for a post-Trump landscape.
“Obviously, they had a slower start because of everything we’ve been going through,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “I feel much better than I thought I would a few months ago.”
“We’ve been doing a lot more,” added Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally. “It’s not like he had to introduce himself, but I think from the campaign as a whole, yes there’s been a lot of engagement around policy, around priorities, around particular states, and around key strategic decisions.”
And it couldn’t have come at a better time for Democrats. As Biden maintains a double-digit polling lead over Trump, Republicans are openly squabbling with each other over everything from fealty to the president to what should be included in their coronavirus relief package.
In interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers and aides, most said they’ve seen a notable shift from just weeks ago, when they described Biden’s attempts to coordinate with Hill Democrats as falling flat. Democrats said the global pandemic was partly to blame: Biden seized the party mantle just as the U.S. shuttered overnight, forcing him into his now-famous basement TV studio.
One senior Democratic aide said there had been “a lot of frustration with Biden’s outreach because it wasn’t as robust as it could have or should have been.” Over time, the outreach grew, and the same aide noted a “very clear ramp up in engagement.”
Biden’s campaign, for example, had been holding regular calls with Hill communications directors since March, but several Democrats still complained they were receiving minimal messaging guidance just weeks ago.
Then Biden’s team added calls with chiefs of staff over the summer, sometimes multiple times a week, as well as outreach to specific groups like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the moderate New Democrat Coalition and state delegations like New York and Michigan. The campaign is also helping to coordinate media appearances for lawmakers advocating for the Biden agenda.
And Biden on Thursday met virtually with congressional women’s caucus co-chairs Louis Frankel, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, who is on the vice presidential search committee, was also present in her role as campaign co-chair.
“It’s different, I’m starting to see it,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), adding that he’s taken part in several Zoom conferences with the campaign and has scheduled a few more.
Biden had already been holding calls with some of those groups during the heated primary campaign, vying for congressional endorsements alongside a slew of other presidential contenders.
Since securing the Democratic nomination, Biden has returned to groups like the CHC — taking part in a call last week with dozens of members eager to grill him on his plans on immigration policy and his response to Covid-19.
“He was the first one who came to the Hispanic Caucus,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who took part in both calls and said he was impressed by the details of Biden’s plans since he first heard them months ago. “He said he’d be back. He has been.”
“I don’t know if everybody agreed with him 100 percent, but he was very good about it — much more open than he was previously,” Vargas said, adding that Biden’s wife, Jill, had also participated in calls with lawmakers to talk about policy plans on issues like education.
Biden has also incorporated ideas from senior Democrats into policy proposals that his campaign unveiled in recent weeks. Biden consulted with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on his “Made in America” jobs proposal. And on his clean energy plan, Biden included a proposal from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to incentivize the use of electric vehicles.Biden’s team has also shared details of the candidate’s economic recovery plan with lawmakers ahead of time as he rolls it out in several parts.
“It’s important to Vice President Biden not just that we win the White House, but that candidates up and down the ballot succeed, and that we’re coordinating and amplifying our message,” said Kate Berner, Biden’s deputy communications manager for messaging, in an email.
According to a campaign aide, the campaign is trying to convey to Hill Democrats that it will have an open-door policy.
But while Democrats across the Capitol say they’re hearing more from the Biden campaign, several senior lawmakers and aides said they aren’t looking to him to guide their negotiations on the latest coronavirus relief bill, with one senior staffer saying that would be “inappropriate” given he’s not even officially the party nominee.
“There are conversations taking place, should Vice President Biden become President Biden, to mitigate and unwind a lot of the damage the Trump administration has done in just their mismanagement of this pandemic,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.).
Biden’s ramp-up in outreach on Capitol Hill comes as Democrats stand far more firmly united behind their presidential nominee than in 2016, when a series of missteps at the national level left supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) feeling stung and disengaged.
This year, Biden put in the work early to help stitch together the party after a brutal primary battle, forming a “Unity Task Force” with Sanders and bringing aboard some of the Democratic party’s most progressive policymakers.
“I will say that while we didn’t get everything we want – we didn’t turn Biden into Bernie Sanders or some other candidate – we were able to make enormous progress and that is on everything from climate to health care to criminal justice reform,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who helped shape Biden’s health policy as part of the task force.
And while Democrats struggled to form a unified message in 2016, the center theme of their campaign this time around has basically been formulated for them: The presidential campaign is focusing almost solely on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has now infected 4 million Americans and left more than 143,000 dead.
Still, some factions of the Democratic caucus say they want to hear more from Biden and his team about concerns they’ve raised personally about the strategy or message.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas, who leads the campaign arm of the CHC, said he and his team are still pressing Biden to involve them even more in their operations on the ground.
“We’re reaching out to them. They are reaching out to us, but I think the energy of us reaching out to them is a little bit stronger,” Cárdenas said in an interview. “I say that respectfully, they’re a national campaign, I know they’re pulled in a million directions.”
Another House Democrat, who declined to be identified to speak candidly about the campaign, said they have repeatedly warned campaign officials that Biden is ignoring their key battleground district — which flipped from Obama to Trump — but has not received a visit from the former vice president yet this year.
Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), the most endangered Democrat in the Senate, said he’s been in touch regularly with Biden’s team, and sometimes the candidate himself. Jones, too, said there’s been a more “overt uptick” in communication overall.
“It is about how to reach voters in the south, what states might be in play, what states might not be in play. How can the campaign help folks like me and help others,” Jones said of his conversations with the campaign. “I’m not shy about reaching out.”
Natasha Korecki contributed to this story.