PHILADELPHIA -- If a president's most precious commodity is time, there is no place more valuable politically for the White House this midterm year than Pennsylvania.
An energized President Joe Biden returned Friday to the Keystone State, his 15th visit since he took office, this time to attend a fundraiser with Vice President Kamala Harris and other leaders to boost Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman, gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro and other Pennsylvania Democrats.
The president laid out the stakes immediately, cautioning the Nov. 8 midterm elections were “not a referendum, it’s a choice, a choice between two vastly different visions of America.”
“Democracy is on the ballot this year," he went on. "Along with your right to choose, and your right to privacy. And the amazing thing is they’re saying it out loud.”
The Pennsylvania seat has for months been the most likely pick-up opportunity for Democrats in the evenly-divided Senate, but as prospects darken for Democratic incumbents elsewhere, a win here is becoming an even more urgent insurance policy for the party to cling to Senate control.
“It’s not hyperbole to suggest all eyes are on Pennsylvania," Biden said.
The White House has showered attention on the Keystone State — Biden's birthplace — in the final weeks before the election, and officials are preparing for another visit next week. Harris told the crowd the party needs to pick up just two more seats to pass major Democratic agendas on abortion rights and voting rights.
“Two more seats,” Harris said, putting up two fingers. “Just two more seats. One of them, right here.”
The Friday event came three days after Fetterman — recovering from a stroke earlier this year that he says nearly killed him — had a shaky showing in his sole debate against Republican Mehmet Oz. He spoke smoothly before the crowd in his trademark hoodie and jeans, saying he wanted to bring all Americans the same kind of quality health care that saved his life.
“So I may not say everything perfectly sometimes, but I’ll always do the right thing if you send me to Washington, D.C.,” he said to a standing ovation.
The dinner at the Pennsylvania Convention Center is the state party’s biggest fundraiser of the year, and party officials said the $1 million raised is the most ever for the dinner. Attendees included U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, and U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, for whom Biden headlined a virtual fundraiser earlier this week.
In his remarks, Biden focused his attacks against congressional Republicans, honing in on GOP plans to raise prescription drug costs, cut Medicare and Social Security, and pass a nationwide abortion ban. Republicans, if they win, will get rid of the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with pre-existing conditions, energy tax credits and the corporate minimum tax of 15%, he warned.
“That’s their plan, among other things. It’s reckless, it’s irresponsible, it’ll make inflation much worse. It will badly hurt middle class Americans,” the president said.
In the Senate race, polls show a close race between Fetterman and Oz. The Democrat's debate performance shocked some viewers and sowed concerns among party leaders. A day later, he delivered a smooth 13-minute stump speech in Pittsburgh as his campaign tried to downplay Tuesday's performance, saying Fetterman has always been lousy at debates and that the closed-captioning system he used as an aid was faulty.
Ravi Balu, a dentist who is the party’s vice chair in Westmoreland County, in western Pennsylvania, heard from a number of friends who were worried or surprised by Fetterman’s performance. He said he told them that, whatever Fetterman’s lingering issues from the stroke, that he will recover and will always be more “relatable” to regular people than Oz.
“It’s a thing he took a big risk on,” Balu said. “But I also think he got a lot of the sympathy from people.”
The White House stressed again this week that Biden - through his personal conversations with the lieutenant governor - believes Fetterman is physically capable to serve in public office, and cited analyses from independent medical experts who have said his halting speech did not indicate an issue with his cognitive functions.
“John IS Pennsylvania,” Biden said Friday, adding: “John leaves nobody behind.”
Biden viewed parts of the Tuesday night debate and “thought Lt. Governor John Fetterman did great,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in an e-mail Friday.
In the meantime, Fetterman’s campaign and national Democratic groups are directing attention elsewhere and pouring money into TV ads with a debate clip of Oz in which he says “I want women, doctors, local political leaders” to decide the fate of a woman’s right to an abortion.
The statement — which spread rapidly across social media immediately after the debate — was meant to frame Oz's opposition to a federal ban that would pare back abortion access in Pennsylvania, even though he opposes abortion. But Democrats say it's proof that Oz wants politicians in doctors’ offices and exam rooms with women.
Biden brought up the moment on Friday, and his puzzled look over the comments were greeted with a huge laugh from the crowd.
“You heard it right: ‘local political leaders,’” he said. “Look the bottom line is this, if Republicans gain control of Congress and pass a national ban on abortion, I will veto it. But if we elect to the Senate two more Democrats and keep control of the house, we're going to codify Roe v. Wade in January so it's the law of the land."
Biden’s approval ratings are sagging in Pennsylvania similarly to the rest of the nation, begging the question of whether his presence is good for Democrats in a year when Republicans have political winds at their back.
But Biden won heavily in 2020 in Philadelphia and its four suburban “collar” counties — including winning over Republican moderates — and that boosted him to victory over former President Donald Trump.
The Democratic president likely remains popular there.
Democratic political strategist Mark Nevins said that energizing voters in Philadelphia and its heavily populated suburbs — home to one in three registered Pennsylvania voters — “is a cornerstone to a Democratic win in Pennsylvania in the Senate race and in the governor’s race, and frankly in some of these suburban races as well.”
Even if there is some debate about whether Biden can help on the campaign trail, “the one area that’s a constant is his ability to help raise funds. Presidents can help there. There’s no debate that they’ll take the help of a president in fundraising in these very costly races,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Biden also has treated Pennsylvania as something of a home base.
It’s where he spent part of his childhood, it’s where he’s campaigned countless times for himself and other Democrats and it’s where Democrats called him “Pennsylvania’s third senator” during his 36 years in the Senate from next door in Delaware.