Biden also faces nettlesome campaign opponents in Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) — who recently launched a Democratic primary challenge declaring that “it’s time for a new generation” — and from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who after flirting with a primary campaign is running as an independent in the general election.
The growing field of challengers presents, at the very least, another headache for Biden, who has been shown to be tied with or even trailing Trump in both national and swing-state polls.
Biden and his allies have pointed to promising election results during his term — “polls don’t vote, people do” has become a mantra — including the strong showing that Democrats had Tuesday night. The party took full control of the Virginia legislature, retained the Kentucky governor’s office and won a key ballot initiative in Ohio. All were powered by an electorate animated by protecting abortion rights.
Biden himself bristled Thursday when asked why he’s trailing Trump in a series of swing-state polls.
“Because you don’t read the polls,” he said. “Ten polls. Eight of them, I’m beating him in those places. Eight of them. You guys only do two. CNN and New York Times. Check it out. Check it out.”
Asked whether he didn’t believe he’s trailing in battleground states, he responded, “No, I don’t.”
He later released a lengthy statement on Manchin’s retirement.
“For more than forty years — as a state legislator, a Secretary of State, a Governor, and a Senator — Joe Manchin has dedicated himself to serving the people of his beloved West Virginia,” Biden said, before listing legislation that he shaped during the past three years.
“The entire Manchin family should feel proud of the Senator’s service to West Virginia and to our country,” he said. “I look forward to continuing our work together to get things done for the American people.”
The fact that Biden is encountering even quixotic efforts seems to underscore the widespread angst about him as leader of the party.
But at this stage, most of his challenges are more symbolic than actual threats. Phillips, while potentially well-funded and guided by some experienced political consultants, remains a long shot and is focused on only a handful of primary states. It is also by no means clear that Manchin will launch a presidential campaign, nor is it clear that some of the independent candidates will be able to get the signatures necessary to get on all or even most state ballots. Some of those candidates, particularly Kennedy, may just as easily pull from Trump as they would from Biden.
“I wouldn’t put a whole lot of stock in any of it right now,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant and a senior adviser for the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump PAC. “I’m not saying there won’t be problems. But some of them may never materialize.”
Trippi said the greatest threat to Biden is well-funded efforts from No Labels — a group exploring a potential bipartisan third-party ticket — and the possibility that a stronger third-party effort peels off voters from Biden.
“You look at 2016 and it was the strength of third parties that made the difference for Trump defeating Hillary,” he said. “In 2020 those third parties performed substantially weaker, and that was the difference.”
Biden and his team succeeded for much of the year in dampening any talk of alternatives, despite alarming polls. But as the polls have become more dire for him, the political landscape has started to dramatically rearrange since the start of October.
Academic Cornel West abandoned his Green Party bid in favor of an independent run. That helped open the door for Stein to launch her own campaign from the left. Kennedy also abandoned his Democratic campaign to launch an independent run.
Phillips has recruited the support of top advisers to two former Democratic presidential contenders: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Then this week, a new Draft Romney Manchin Committee filed papers with the Federal Election Commission — an idea that Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) office immediately ruled out Thursday.
Biden campaign advisers Thursday acknowledged that the election is likely to be very close, decided by a small number of voters in a small number of states. They plan to highlight the stark differences between Biden and Trump, assuming he’s the nominee, and suggest they have multiple pathways to winning reelection.
There are also continued signs of animosity toward No Labels, which is not legally required to disclose its donors — a drama that is likely to continue to play out over the coming months.
“No Labels is a dark-money front for billionaires and corporate special interests that embodies the worst of Washington corruption,” said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, a group that opposes special interest money in politics. “Real parties disclose their donors and No Labels should do the same.”
No Labels, a group that has long worked closely with Manchin, has continued to acquire ballot access for its potential third-party campaign for president, which would involve a bipartisan presidential and vice-presidential ticket. Manchin has not ruled out joining that effort.
No Labels has so far gained ballot access in 12 states, with a goal of achieving 27 states this year. The group plans a nominating convention in April in Dallas, and its leaders say they will move forward only if there is a clear path to victory and a minimal chance of helping aid Trump’s reelection. The group has been working to develop a nominating process, with no date set for its announcement.
No decision has been made about whether a Republican or Democrat would top the No Labels ticket, according to people involved in the process, but some Democrats have been comforted by recent speculation that the group would prefer a Republican at the top, in part to minimize the risk of spoiling the election for Trump.
“We are very sad that he is not running for Senate because no one else can win that seat,” said Matt Bennett, a vice president of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “But we are not alarmed about him running for president because No Labels has said they want a Republican, and he is no one’s number two.”
A group of activists who expect to be involved in the No Labels nominating process, as volunteers or delegates, created the Draft Romney Manchin Committee on Wednesday, not knowing that Manchin would rule out running for reelection a day later, according to a person involved in the effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
With an expected budget of $1 million, the group has three goals, this person said: to commission polling that encourages Romney and Manchin to run as a ticket by showing a path to 270 electoral votes, to build the infrastructure for that campaign and to help them win the No Labels nomination at the Dallas convention in April.
The effort is not affiliated with No Labels leadership or the two men, and the first polling will start soon in Arizona, the person said. The goal is to have Romney run as president and Manchin as vice president.
“They work well together. They know each other well,” the person said. “No Labels is the only path for this to happen right now.”
It is unclear where, if anywhere, the Draft Romney Manchin Committee will lead, particularly given that Romney’s chief of staff Liz Johnson said Thursday, “Senator Romney was not aware of this effort and he is not considering running for president on any ticket.” A person close to Manchin said he has made no decisions and isn’t ruling out a presidential run — but that he doesn’t expect to make any decision imminently.
When asked last month what he thought about the No Labels pitch during an October conference with his longtime donors and friends in Park City, Romney said, “I haven’t been convinced yet.”
“I don’t know how someone gets 270 electoral votes,” he said when asked about the No Labels pitch during a Q&A session with former Republican House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
“If there was someone — an extraordinary personality, big personality — like Ross Perot, all right? That had the capacity to really ignite people and start a movement; and we all knew this person’s name, and we’re all excited about that person running — maybe there’s a shot,” Romney added. “But if you look around at the names of the people that might consider this job. I just don’t see how that happens.”
Romney and his wife, Ann — his closest confidante, who has enormous influence over his political decisions — have appeared content to move on from politics.
Kaivan Shroff, a Democratic consultant who worked on Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said that a Manchin bid in particular could further a negative narrative of intraparty fighting that does not help Biden supporters appear united. And candidacies of politicians to the right, even slightly, of Biden could make it more difficult for the president to appeal to those in the center.
“I think it makes Biden look further to the left in a way that’s not really fair or representative of where the country is at right now,” he said.
Biden, meanwhile, spent Thursday in Illinois, visiting with United Auto Workers and the union president, Shawn Fain, whose endorsement Biden is hoping will help him particularly in key industrial Midwestern states.
The 80-year-old president joked about his age — “I know I only look like I’m 30, but I’ve been around a long time” — and, when someone fell on the media riser, remarked, “I want the press to know, that wasn’t me.” And he closed with more pointed attacks on Trump.
“Donald Trump often says we’re now a failing nation, we’re a nation in decline,” he said. “But that’s not what I see.”
And, later in the evening, he held a fundraiser where he reassured donors that they were not wasting their money on him — but quipped that he could still “screw up.”
He touted the results of Tuesday elections and remarked on his ability to go “toe-to-toe” with Trump.
“We haven’t stopped winning, and he hasn’t stopped losing,” he said. “This guy can’t get tired of losing.”
Maeve Reston, Tyler Pager and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.
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