WASHINGTON – As Democrats fight to keep control of the Senate, President Joe Biden has been practically absent from midterm election campaigning in pivotal states such as Georgia, Nevada and Ohio.
But he keeps coming back to Pennsylvania, where he spent his childhood and his low approval ratings won't keep him away. He plans to return on Thursday for the 14th time since taking office in January 2021, speaking about infrastructure in Pittsburgh and holding a fundraiser in Philadelphia for Democratic John Fetterman, who's running for an open Senate seat. And Biden's 15th trip is already scheduled for next week.
Pennsylvania is only a short flight from Washington, making it the most convenient swing state for the president to visit. It's also central to Biden's political identity, even rivaling his home state of Delaware, which he represented as a senator for nearly four decades.
With its communities of blue-collar white voters, Pennsylvania is an intimate test of whether Democrats can still win over the kind of people that Biden grew up with in Scranton, but more recently have thrown their support to Republicans and Donald Trump.
“It’s personal for Joe Biden," said Darrin Kelly, the president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council. "He’s no stranger here, because he pretty much is one of us.”
Kelly said Biden has followed through on his promises to organized labor, pushing policies that will help working people. But will that sink in on Election Day, Nov. 8?
“Time will tell," Kelly said.
Biden's approval ratings remain underwater in Pennsylvania, much as they do nationwide. But he still has “something of a home field advantage” when he visits, said Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
“In Pennsylvania, he can still help more than he can hurt," Borick said.
Biden's family moved to neighboring Delaware when he was 10 years old. He eventually began his political career there and was elected to the Senate in 1972.
But he was often called Pennsylvania's “third senator," and he still peppers his speeches with references to Scranton.
While speaking last summer in Macungie, a small town in Lehigh County, Biden mixed up his geography by saying “down the road in Bethlehem" rather than “up the road.”
“I’m used to thinking from Scranton," he explained.
Biden returned to his birthplace almost exactly one year ago to promote his economic agenda.
“I believe that home is where your character is etched, and I really mean that,” Biden said, adding that “it’s where your view of the world begins.”
He reminisced about playing shortstop with the Green Ridge Little League, buying penny candy at Simmey’s and celebrating Mass at St. Paul’s.
Although Biden expresses nostalgia for Scranton, it's also where he came to understand the humiliation that economic struggles can bring. His dad couldn't find work and the family had to move.
“I think the longest walk a parent can make is up a short flight of stairs to tell their kid, ‘You can’t live here anymore,'" Biden said. “'You can’t because dad doesn’t have a job.' Or ‘mom don’t have a job.'”
It's the same kind of pain that he talks about when it comes to issues such as prescription drugs, asking his audience to put themselves in the shoes of a parent unable to afford insulin for a son or daughter with diabetes.
“It’s not only a risk to your child’s life,” he said at the White House last year. “It deprives you of your dignity."
Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, who doesn't face reelection until 2024, said Biden's experience helps him connect with people who face their own challenges.
“He’s able to understand what it’s like to struggle, and to understand people who are up against difficult circumstances," Casey said.
Fetterman is running against Republican Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon who hosted a daytime television show for more than a decade. They're competing to succeed Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who did not seek reelection.
Brittany Yanick, a spokeswoman for Oz, said Fetterman “would be a rubber stamp for the Biden agenda.”
“Joe Biden and far-left Democrats like John Fetterman have sent the U.S. economy spiraling into a recession, caused crime to skyrocket, and allowed gas prices to reach record highs," she said.
Fetterman has faced scrutiny over his health since he had a stroke in May . On Wednesday he released a report from his doctor that said Fetterman “is recovering well from his stroke and his health has continued to improve” and concludes that he “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Biden has found Fetterman “just as capable” of serving as senator as ever. Fetterman is the lieutenant governor, and she said that “he’s doing that with great ability and heartfelt concern for the people of the commonwealth.”
Pennsylvania has one of the country's most expensive Senate races, and Biden will help Democrats with his fundraiser on Thursday.
“We have the tin cup out," said Jamie Perrapato, executive director of the pro-Democratic group Turn PA Blue.
“This is a good time to reassure people, keep them focused, remind them of how important Pennsylvania is," she said.
Casey said “this is one of those years where it will be close,” befitting Pennsylvania's status as a narrowly divided state.
Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016, and Biden won it in 2020.
Given that Biden intends to run for a second term in 2024, Casey said, "it doesn’t hurt to be in Pennsylvania in 2022.”
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This story has been corrected to reflect that Christopher Borick is a professor of political science, not an assistant professor, at Muhlenberg College.