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Biden team aims to compete in North Carolina, test ground in Florida

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/15/2023 Michael Scherer, Tyler Pager
President Biden speaks at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, N.C., on April 14, 2022. © Carolyn Kaster/AP President Biden speaks at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, N.C., on April 14, 2022.

Top advisers to President Biden are planning a 2024 battleground strategy that fully invests in North Carolina, while mounting an early challenge in the increasingly Republican domain of Florida, home to two of his top potential rivals.

The strategy — which has been briefed to donors in recent weeks and has been signaled in early television advertising buys by the Democratic National Committee — comes as the party and Biden’s team make plans to focus most of their organizing and spending energy on the states that Biden won in 2020.

But the campaign’s early moves provide alternate paths to victory if the president finds himself struggling next year to repeat his 2020 victory. Biden won Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin by less than a single percentage point. If he loses all three states in 2024, he can still win the White House by winning North Carolina and holding onto his other states.

Florida — home to former president Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), two potential 2024 rivals — is widely seen as an increasingly conservative must-win state for Republicans, but it offers a different opportunity for Democrats, according to Democrats briefed on the plans. The party is willing to spend early on the state this year in the hopes of making it more competitive next year, while withholding judgment on whether it will be worth the same sort of investment in the fall of 2024 as it was in 2020.

“We fully expect North Carolina and Florida to be competitive and we are investing early and accordingly,” Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said. “President Biden has delivered real results for residents in both states.”

Since Biden announced his reelection effort, his nascent campaign, which still lacks a headquarters and many senior staff hires, has spent about $1.6 million on television advertising with the DNC, according to media-tracking firm AdImpact. Of the money spent on state-specific television markets, about 12 percent has been divided between North Carolina and Florida, with the rest going to six states that Biden won in 2020 that are widely expected to be battlegrounds in 2024: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

American Bridge, a Democrat-aligned group that has hosted Biden advisers at its events, has also told donors that it hopes to expand its Midwestern advertising campaign into North Carolina next year. The group ran ads for Biden in the state earlier this year.

“This would be the right call for President Biden,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) about the Biden campaign’s investing heavily in his state. “North Carolina is the fullback of presidential politics. Republicans have to win it to be president. Democrats don’t. But it’s critical for Democrats to keep it close because Republicans have to expend extraordinary resources and time making sure they win North Carolina.”

President Biden and, on screen, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) during a virtual meeting with governors to discuss efforts to protect access to reproductive health care on July 1, 2022. © Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post President Biden and, on screen, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) during a virtual meeting with governors to discuss efforts to protect access to reproductive health care on July 1, 2022.

Both Florida and North Carolina require expensive advertising, and neither was considered a top-tier landscape for the party during the 2022 elections, when Republicans comfortably won statewide contests. Florida, in particular, has been the most expensive state for presidential campaigns in recent election cycles, given its size and multiple media markets.

Biden’s 2020 campaign and supporting groups spent more than $166 million on television ads in the state in the last six months of the campaign, according to AdImpact. The 2020 Biden campaign spent $47 million on ads in North Carolina, making it the fourth most expensive state for the campaign.

“We are excited the Biden campaign is investing in both of these states as Republicans always encourage Democrats to light money on fire in places where voters have solidly rejected them cycle after cycle,” Emma Vaughn, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement.

Biden lost Florida by 3.4 percentage points and North Carolina by 1.3 points in 2020. But some Democrats still credit their massive spending in Florida, including a late infusion of money from former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, with forcing Republicans to divert resources away from other Midwestern states that Biden won.

“If the Biden campaign, by spending money early and putting some people on the ground, can get to the place where Republicans have to take Florida seriously, that is a massive move on the chessboard,” said Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic strategist who advises the pro-Biden group Unite the Country. “I also don’t think there is any world in which Florida went from a one-point state to a three-point state to an 18-point state in a couple of campaign cycles.”

Biden aides believe their efforts will be aided by other state-specific developments, according to people briefed on the plans.

Republicans in North Carolina are expected to override a veto from Cooper later this year to narrow the legal window for legal abortions in the state from 20 weeks of gestation to 12 weeks, while imposing new regulations on doctors performing abortions and expanded requirements for an additional in-person meeting with doctors before a patient undergoes either a surgical or medication-induced procedure.

Morgan Jackson, a political adviser to Cooper and other Democrats in the state, said “2024 is setting up to be a referendum in North Carolina on abortion, and that is a bad thing for Republicans. This kind of action is going to galvanize women. It is going to galvanize younger voters.”

Demographic trends in the state, including a rising share of college-educated voters, is also expected to help the party. Barack Obama won North Carolina during the 2008 election and then narrowly lost the state four years later, despite hosting the party’s nominating convention in Charlotte. Since then, the population has grown by about 10 percent, making it the 15th fastest-growing state. Nearly half of the state’s population was born elsewhere.

Since 2020, Republicans have outpaced Democrats in voter registration in the state, adding more than 6,000 voters while Democrats have lost more than 175,000 voters.

Democrats are also hopeful that a competitive gubernatorial race in North Carolina will help their turnout, with Attorney General Josh Stein as the Democratic favorite.

The Republican favorite for the job, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, supports an outright abortion ban and opposes same-sex marriage. He is known for controversial statements, such as calling homosexuality and transgenderism “filth” and calling student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting “media prostit-tots.” He has boasted of owning a semiautomatic rifle in case the government gets “too big for its britches.”

“In Mark Robinson, you have a very powerful force that will turn out not only the Democratic base, but will sway a lot of independent voters because they’re not going to tolerate particularly a governor candidate who has an AR-15 and is ready to shoot government officials,” said Cooper, who is barred by law from seeking a third term in office.

Presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers remarks at Bucks County Community College in Bristol, Pa., on Oct. 24, 2020. © Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post Presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers remarks at Bucks County Community College in Bristol, Pa., on Oct. 24, 2020.

Activists in Florida, in the meantime, are working to get two statewide ballot measures approved for the 2024 ballot — one to legalize recreational marijuana for adults and a second to reverse the recent six-week abortion ban, with rape and incest exceptions allowed up to 15 weeks, approved by DeSantis. Democrats hope that the initiatives will help reverse a dramatic drop in turnout among their voters in 2022.

A March poll by the University of North Florida found that 3 in 4 Florida voters opposed a six-week abortion ban without rape and incest exceptions.

“Florida is really a case study in the difference between politics and policy,” said freshman Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), a member of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board. “DeSantis thrives in the void where it is just about politics.”

Democrats have not won a presidential race in Florida for more than a decade, since Obama’s 2012 reelection. DeSantis enjoyed a 19-point victory over Democrat Charlie Crist in 2022, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won reelection by 16 points.

One Biden adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss campaign strategy, said the midterm results, though disappointing, suggested a path forward for the party. Neither state had a full campaign investment from the party, and the president’s accomplishments around prescription drugs, defending entitlement spending and manufacturing investment lined up well in the states.

“We are stronger today with the Florida electorate than we were in ’20, and we have more to run on,” the adviser said.

But Republicans tout their increasing voter registration advantage in the state: Republicans flipped a deficit in 2020 and have 538,000 more registered voters than Democrats.

Nikki Fried, the former state agriculture commissioner who was the last Democrat to win a statewide race in Florida, recently became the chair of the Florida state party. She noted recent visits to the state from Biden, Vice President Harris and other nationally recognized leaders. She was also arrested last month during a sit-in protest of the recently passed six-week abortion ban.

“You haven’t seen the chair of the Florida Democratic Party being arrested before, and it is bringing energy into the party again,” Fried said.


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