Why is President Biden heading back to Pennsylvania? It’s more than the state where he was born

July 28, 2021
In The News

Dubbed “Pennsylvania’s third senator” during his Senate tenure, President Joe Biden is giving the state where he was born special attention.

Biden’s tour of a Mack Trucks factory in Lower Macungie Township in the Lehigh Valley on Wednesday marks the Scranton-born president’s sixth trip to Pennsylvania since taking office. That’s one for each month he’s been in office — including five official trips and a personal visit to his sister’s house in a Philadelphia suburb.

Biden’s multiple visits to the Keystone State highlight his familial ties, its economic diversity and the state’s political strategic importance. The open Senate race in 2022, set to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, could determine control of the Senate and outlook for Biden’s agenda after the midterm elections.

Only Delaware, which Biden represented as senator and where he has a home, and Virginia, where the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery are located, have received more visits since Biden’s inauguration. Those Delaware visits have primarily been for weekend rest and relaxation.

Biden’s visits to Pennsylvania, however, have been the stage to launch and promote some of his most important agenda items.

In March, he went to a flooring company in Chester to promote aid to small businesses in his COVID-19 relief plan. A few weeks later, he trekked to Pittsburgh to lay out his plan to combat climate change.

He went to Philadelphia in April to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Amtrak and push his infrastructure plan. And then in July, Biden returned to the city to deliver a speech at the National Constitution Center on voting rights after legislation stalled in the Senate.

“It’s a state that has such diversity that when you’re dealing with any kind of major issue like infrastructure or otherwise, you’re going to a place where there’s a pretty good template for what the nation is thinking,” said Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat from Scranton whose father served two terms as governor.

“He’s been trying to get around the country, but if he goes to Pennsylvania on every trip I will never begrudge him that,” Casey said, contending that Biden’s visits will help down-ballot Democrats.

Pennsylvania benefits from a close proximity to the nation’s capital, with most of the state reachable within an hour’s ride on Air Force One. But the state still holds personal and political meaning for the president.

“We’re the Keystone State,” said Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. “We’re a microcosm of the U.S. population. We’re old, we’re young, we’re big. And it’s the birthplace of Joe Biden.”

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Spending his first 10 years of childhood in Scranton, Biden frequently references his long-standing ties to the state and headquartered his campaign in Philadelphia. His 2020 victory hinged in large part on flipping the state back to Democratic hands four years after then-President Donald Trump became the first Republican to capture it since 1988.

The state promises to be a key battleground again in 2024 after the past two presidential elections in the state were narrowly decided by tens of thousands of votes. Biden won by a little more than one percentage point, or a more than 80,000 vote margin, in an election with roughly 6.8 million ballots cast.

But the Senate race in 2022 will be the first test of whether Biden’s support in the state endures after taking office and whether he can boost his party’s nominee.

“It shows how much he cares about this area and the state. It also shows that Pennsylvania will continue to be vital in the 2022 and 2024 elections, just as it was in 2020,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat who joined Biden on three of his visits.

Rep. Fred Keller, a Republican whose central Pennsylvania district includes State College, said Biden’s visits to the state would be insignificant in the face of inflation and other hits to Pennsylvanians’ pocketbooks.

“Pennsylvanians want the economy to prosper, we want family-sustaining jobs, and we want a brighter future for our children. By each of these metrics, the president’s agenda has failed Pennsylvania time and again,” Keller said in an email. “Joe Biden is woefully out-of-touch with respect to what the people of our Commonwealth value. No amount of photo-ops can fix that.”

Republicans point out that they’re still less than five years removed from their presidential breakthrough in the state, and even amid Biden’s win last year, GOP candidates still won statewide elections for treasurer and auditor general in an indication of just how competitive the environment was.

In the GOP’s view, Biden’s win was a temporary setback in a state that, like other states in the Great Lakes region, is trending inexorably to the right.

“All you have to do is look at the Senate, and statehouse and Congress, and you can tell what the trajectory is,” said Rob Gleason, a former GOP state party chairman in Pennsylvania.

The 2022 race will take place in the aftermath of the protracted legal battle over the 2020 results, which saw Republicans attempt to overturn Biden’s victory in court and in Congress on Jan. 6.

Months later, election denialism has become a GOP litmus test as state-level Republicans in Harrisburg pursue an audit of the 2020 election results in the vein of the partisan inquiry in Arizona.

Pennsylvania has gone against the incumbent president’s party in every midterm Senate election going back to 1994.

In 2010, Toomey returned the seat to GOP hands just a little more than a year after incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter’s party switch to Democrat briefly gave President Barack Obama a 60-seat supermajority in the Senate.

Currently grappling with a 50-50 Senate, Biden faces even greater stakes in Pennsylvania in the upcoming midterm than Obama did.

Only the second president born in Pennsylvania, Biden spent more than three decades representing Delaware, a state with the bulk of its population near the Pennsylvania border and which falls squarely in the Philadelphia media market.

It helped familiarize Biden to voters in the crucial Philadelphia suburbs, which he won by a larger margin than 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton even as Trump made gains in the city itself.

All but one of Biden’s Pennsylvania trips this year has been to a location within 50 miles of Philadelphia, a reflection of the major role the counties adjacent to the city play in determining statewide elections.

First lady Jill Biden can also serve as a messenger to the region. She grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Willow Grove, speaks with a Philadelphia regional accent and often touts her love of the city’s sports teams.

The first lady joined Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney on July 4 for the annual Celebration of Freedom Ceremony outside Independence Hall, where she leaned into her regional roots.

“At times, people have told me that Philadelphians are tough. That we’re outspoken and loud. Well, and they said that’s putting it nicely,” she said. “Well, you know what, we are tough. We’re fierce. When we get knocked down, we get right back up, and we never stop fighting for the things we care about and the people we love.”