vision 2020

How Biden Is Trying to Reach Trump-Weary Republicans

Campaigning for reinforcements. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Not many details are widely known yet about this summer’s Democratic convention, which has been successively postponed, downsized, downplayed, digitized, expanded, hyped, and turned into something of a mid-August television pageant in the four months since the coronavirus pandemic upended the 2020 election. But a few things are obvious to liberals paying close attention. Joe Biden will deliver a speech in Milwaukee, and his running mate will get a prime-time slot. It would be a pretty big surprise if both Barack and Michelle Obama don’t make keynote appearances, too, and Bernie Sanders will almost certainly occupy a spot on the marquee.

And then there’s John Kasich.

Even some senior Democratic officials were surprised to hear in late July that Ohio’s former Republican governor would get a speaking role. It’s not unusual for nominees to brag about across-the-aisle support, but at a convention, cross-party speakers are usually someone more like Michael Bloomberg — a onetime moderate Republican mayor who ditched that party in 2007 and spoke for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — than Kasich, the anti-abortion, union enemy who ran for the GOP’s presidential nomination just four years ago.

But Kasich has always been a face of the meager conservative opposition to Trump, and his presence onstage is now expected to become a centerpiece of the Biden team’s increasingly aggressive effort to woo former Republican and GOP-curious Americans. After all, a large part of Biden’s appeal has been to suburban voters, especially women, who came out for Democrats in 2018’s midterms. His strategists see an opportunity to expand his advantages with groups like them, and seniors, that have leaned toward Republicans in modern presidential elections but now seem open to ditching Trump for Biden. (That’s in addition to the other first-tier goal of winning over Black and Latino voters in traditionally Democratic states where Clinton underperformed in 2016, as well as flipping battlegrounds where Trump has lost ground since then, in part by reaching disaffected voters.)

Kasich’s role will likely be to help woo these wobbly Republican voters. “I think they want to give permission to Republicans that it’s okay to vote for Biden,” said Stuart Stevens, a veteran GOP operative who was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in 2012, and whose views on Trump’s party are summed up in the title of his scathing new book on the topic, It Was All a Lie. And if Biden has his way, Kasich will have plenty of company. The nominee himself isn’t doing preliminary outreach to bold-name Republicans who might be willing to defect, but some of his top allies are making quiet approaches. Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator turned Obama administration defense secretary, has spoken with some former GOP officials about Biden, as have both Bloomberg and former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, a Democrat and close Biden associate. Meanwhile other Biden friends on Capitol Hill tell Intelligencer they have had informal conversations with current Republican colleagues gauging potential support. (Delaware’s Chris Coons, one of Biden’s top supporters, is known in particular for his bipartisan relationships in the Senate.)

De facto ambassador Kasich. Photo: AP/Shutterstock/AP/Shutterstock

No one expects a deluge, even as Trump’s poll numbers plunge to new depths: The president still has the overwhelming support of the GOP’s current power structure and rank and file, and he enjoys few activities more than making life miserable for Republicans who abandon him. Many of his supporters roll their eyes at figures like Kasich, whom they regard as politically marginal. And they point out that Clinton, too, had a raft of ex-Republicans on her side in 2016, including some of the same people standing up to oppose Trump now, like Quibi executive and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. Meanwhile, whereas some current GOP leaders in elected office have broken from Trump’s recent public messaging on the coronavirus or indicated they plan to skip his convention, these fissures are not a permanent political break, or even a sign of any coordinated shift within factions of the party — few things scare Republican officeholders more than the prospect of Trump’s wrath if he thinks they’ve turned on him. One Democratic congressman who is close with Biden told me he had been speaking with moderate Republican colleagues who said they would be open to voting for the Democrat, but that they wouldn’t admit it out loud.

“Most of the Republican members in competitive seats lost in 2018, so the pool of folks we’re even talking about is significantly smaller. And even for those who are remaining, their calculus is difficult,” he explained. “While distancing themselves from Trump might help them with some swing voters, if they alienate even 5 to 10 percent of Trump voters, that might be enough to cost them.”

Still, some Biden allies are holding out hope that recently retired Trump-skeptical or -opposed GOP officials like ex-senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker might denounce the president’s reelection bid, and that retiring Republican House members like Will Hurd or Francis Rooney might chime in, too. (They’d love to get Romney, too, but they don’t expect much success given that he still has four years left in his Senate term.) The Biden partisans know they won’t win over conservative diehards, but the idea is to generate news coverage every time an official like Kasich steps up, demonstrating to questioning voters that there’s another option for them.

Kasich is the most prominent member of this camp, but he’s not alone. Some, like Whitman and Colin Powell, backed Clinton against Trump in 2016. Others, like 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, only switched over after witnessing four years of Trump. Some have cited Jim Mattis’s denunciation of Trump as a watershed moment. And still others came to the conclusion to back Biden after years of complicated history with the Republican party. Boston hedge-fund manager Seth Klarman, an independent who was, until recently, one of the GOP’s biggest donors despite also occasionally giving to some Democrats, sent a pro-Biden super-PAC $500,000 in March and then gave the Democratic National Committee $350,000 in April after effectively abandoning his Republican giving, according to federal records. And Jim Leach, a former longtime Republican congressman from Iowa who was close with George H.W. Bush and was a prominent critic of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, told me he wrote-in a ticket of a former university president and an Iowa businessman in 2016, after supporting Obama. This time, though, he said he planned to vote for Biden, in part because of the former VP’s “very high decency quotient,” and because Leach is impressed with his wife, Jill.

Leach has kept in touch with a loose network of former Republican House members who are upset with Trump, and others who have organized themselves more formally: Some former George W. Bush–era officials have compiled a list of that administration’s alums opposed to Trump’s reelection, while former Republican administration national security officials John Bellinger and Ken Wainstein have pulled together their own group of onetime colleagues eager to serve as public voices for Biden. Though the Biden camp itself has no formal affiliation with these efforts, it has occasionally pointed interested GOP exiles toward them.

Then there are the flashier organizations, which have run with varying degrees of success. The Republican Voters Against Trump group has been highlighting defectors from the president, while the Lincoln Project, also run by GOP and ex-GOP strategists, has been hammering the president directly with ads. Another one popped up in June, when Matt Borges, a Kasich ally and the former chairman of Ohio’s GOP, joined with former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci to announce a super-PAC aiming to organize Republican voters for Biden. It’s not clear how far this will go, though: The day after news broke that Kasich would speak for Biden, Borges was arrested by the FBI with three other senior Ohio Republicans in a $60 million bribery case.

Democratic groups, too, have aimed some appeals at onetime Trump supporters — one, American Bridge, has for months been recruiting Trump 2016 voters who regret that choice, while Priorities USA, the biggest Democratic super-PAC, is now airing its own version of this appeal. That group recently released a poll showing that roughly a fifth of voters who recently started supporting Biden had voted for Trump in 2016. “What our research has said is these types of suburban voters, even the ones who’ve voted for Trump, don’t want to vote for Trump again,” said one senior Democrat helping direct pro-Biden messaging pointed specifically at suburban women, including registered Republicans. “That doesn’t mean they won’t, but they don’t want to. So they’re looking for reassurance on the Biden front.”

Still, some of Biden’s backers are wary of the outreach, concerned that this reassurance might go too far in welcoming conservatives into the Democratic fold. They don’t want an eventual Biden administration to be swayed too much by his ex-GOP supporters, or for him to compromise on policy during the campaign to win them over, especially since polling already shows him far ahead of Trump even without GOP help. Biden himself appears to hold conflicting views of the modern Republican Party. Though those close to him say he speaks often in private about the nonstop obstruction he and Obama faced from Mitch McConnell’s Senate, he also on occasion muses about Republican officials having some sort of post-Trump epiphany.

Then again, even Biden’s Republican backers aren’t quite sure what to expect from their own party moving forward, though they’re universally disappointed by it now, at the very least.

Some appear to effectively be done with it. “Apparently John Bolton and Liz Cheney aren’t conservatives anymore. The Republican Party has become the party that endorses Roy Moore and attacks John Bolton, all to defend the maxed-out donor to Anthony Weiner,” said Stevens, who is advising the Lincoln Project.

But holdouts remain. “I refuse to leave the Republican Party, even though I consider myself a Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower Republican,” said Leach, the former Iowa congressman. “I consider myself more of a Republican than this president is.”

How Biden Is Trying to Reach Trump-Weary Republicans