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What Biden's speech in Philadelphia means for the midterms

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Labor Day is often seen as the beginning of the fall election campaign. And President Biden travels to Milwaukee, then Pittsburgh, for holiday events - cities that happen to also be in key midterm states. The president set the stage early with a speech in Philadelphia last week describing the upcoming elections as a battle for the soul of the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There's no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to this country.

MARTINEZ: And former President Trump fired back over the weekend, slamming the tone of Biden's address at a campaign rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: The most vicious, hateful and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president.

MARTINEZ: OK. So how will Biden's warning about the threat to democracy impact the midterms? Scott Jennings is a public relations consultant who's worked on many Republican campaigns.

Scott, good morning.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning.

MARTINEZ: And Dan Sena is the former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and is now a media and campaign strategist.

Dan, you are the leadoff hitter. So why did President Biden spend so much time talking about Donald Trump when the former president isn't even on the ballot this year?

DAN SENA: Well, good morning and happy Labor Day. You know, I think the president's speech really established what I believe will ultimately be a choice for this coming election season, where the president really believes that the country and its democracy is at an inflection point. And standing up for democracy now seems to be a bit of a contrast issue heading into the 2022 elections.

MARTINEZ: Scott, should, then, Republican candidates be worried or concerned that Biden is trying to tie the party so closely to Donald Trump?

JENNINGS: Well, I think it's obvious that Biden wants this to be a referendum on Trump and not Biden because Biden's stuck in the low 40s, and 70% or 80% of the country thinks we're off on the wrong track. But I think Biden's words about Trump and the state of our democracy and the danger it faces rings a little hollow. On Thursday night, he gave his speech, and Friday morning, we were treated to the news that Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democrat leader, is plowing $3 million into the New Hampshire Senate primary, trying to get the most ultra-MAGA candidate the Republican nomination there. So to me, the Democrat Party is not putting its money where Joe Biden's mouth is, and that hollows out his message.

MARTINEZ: Well, I want to ask you then, Scott, about Alaska's House race. They have a ranked-choice voting system. And in that House race, only about half the people who voted for the so-called traditional Republican in that race made Sarah Palin their second choice. Palin was backed by President - former President Trump. Others went either Democrat or no candidate at all. So how might that foreshadow other House races?

JENNINGS: Well, most places don't have ranked-choice voting, so we won't run into that issue. I think Sarah Palin had a unique problem. She's Sarah Palin. She left Alaska. She resigned from the governorship. And I don't think she had much to offer the people of Alaska. So I'm not reading too much into that one because of Palin and the ranked-choice system. My main message to Republican candidates if you're worried about Sarah Palin is, be true to your state, and offer the general election voters something that everybody can grab on to, and not just a narrow message that seems to be self-interested.

MARTINEZ: So, Dan, on Scott's point, isn't there a risk that President Biden is taking when he warns that there's a threat to democracy while at the same time the Democratic Party is spending money to boost the profiles of Trump-endorsed candidates in primaries?

SENA: Well, look, I agree that I think our local candidates need to run localized races - pardon me - that really allow those local campaigns to draw a clear contrast in their state. And I think what the president was doing is really establishing more of a metanarrative that sort of sits in the backdrop and helps frame the national choice in this election and really allow the local voters and campaigns to have to make their own choice and run their own campaigns. I think it's smart (inaudible).

JENNINGS: May I respond to that for just a moment?..

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Go ahead, Scott. Go ahead.

JENNINGS: ...Because I think Joe Biden's message was clear. And I actually think it's important that our democracy is under assault from what he said was MAGA ideology. And then he tried to separate certain kinds of Republicans from others, saying, there are some I can work with and some that I can't. So then you go into a race like the New Hampshire Senate race or the Maryland governor's race or Pennsylvania or Colorado or Illinois or on and on and on. And you have the Democrat Party spending money to boost the people that Biden says are dangerous and to suppress the people, like Peter Meijer in Michigan, that he says he can work with. So it's the most cynical and the most hypocritical for the president, in my opinion, to tell the American people how dangerous something is. I mean, look, the Democrat Party is spending more money on these MAGA candidates than Donald Trump is. So to me, it's cynical and hypocritical. And it does undercut the president's core message. And if you want it to be a referendum on that, then your party has to follow along what the president has to say, and they're not doing it.

MARTINEZ: And, Dan, isn't it asking for voters - a little too much for voters - to try and parse out who exactly the Democratic Party would like for them to support in terms of Republican candidates?

SENA: No. And I think - look, all politics are local. We've heard that for quite some time now. And it's a standard bearer in American politics. And, you know, I think, in many ways, the contrasts that will - voters will face in November, you know, are in some ways, you know, previewed in these primaries. And I think putting Democrats in a place where we ultimately have the clearest contrast going into November is smart strategy.

MARTINEZ: Scott, there have been a few Trump-endorsed candidates who have won GOP primaries after repeating the former president's false claims about the 2020 election. Doesn't Biden have at least a valid point, then, about democracy being in danger?

JENNINGS: Look, I think the election denialism is a dead end for the Republican Party. It's not what our party should be about. It's not what the clear winning message should be this November. And it's not going to serve the party well in 2024. Right now Republicans should choose people who are focused on inflation, the economy, the future of our country and so on and so forth. But I was just going to return to my core point. If you believe that and you're a Republican, you should vote that way. And if you're a Democrat president named Joe Biden, you should tell your party to stop spending money on the people who are who are trying to spread this election denialism throughout our system.

MARTINEZ: Scott, let me squeeze in one more for Dan. Should he focus - Biden focus - on the economy instead of what he's doing?

SENA: Well, I think the president has the ability to focus on multiple issues, and we're at an inflection point in our country.

MARTINEZ: Dan Sena and Scott Jennings, political consultants from opposite sides of the aisle.

Dan, Scott, thanks for joining us.

JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.