ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — President Joe Biden took off on a personal final-days campaign sprint Thursday that reflects the Democrats' major concerns before next week's midterm elections, appealing to New Mexico voters to defeat "reckless and irresponsible" Republicans and reelect Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
New Mexico is normally safe Democratic territory, but Lujan Grisham is facing a determined challenge from her Republican opponent, former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti.
At a rally headlined by the president, she warned that Democrats in the state are "a little behind" but assured supporters "we catch up fast."
In fact, the headwinds facing Lujan Grisham are indicative of the difficulties for Democrats in many parts of the country as Biden set off on a multistate campaign swing largely focused on shoring up support in usual party strongholds.
"Remember this is not a referendum. This is a choice," he said, pointing to the stakes next Tuesday.
Biden said Republicans would follow through on proposals to slice healthcare and retirement benefits if they win control of Congress.
"They're just saying it," he said. "They're not even hiding it."
Biden's itinerary in the campaign's final days illustrates the limited political clout of a president who has been held at arm's length by some Democrats in tough races this cycle. It also suggests that the president, whose approval ratings remain underwater, has concluded that he can be most effective using the waning days before polls close to shore up support for Democratic candidates in areas that he easily won in 2020.
Biden' four-state, three-day trip includes California, Illinois and Pennsylvania, where Biden has deep roots.
"Democrats are clearly on the defensive and that's bearing out as the campaign comes to a close," said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. "Their chances for gains don't look realistic, so now you look to what you can preserve."
A president's party typically faces significant losses during midterm elections. Since 1934, only Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, Bill Clinton in 1998, and George W. Bush in 2002 saw their parties gain seats in the midterms.
Some recent presidents saw big losses in their first midterm races. Republicans under Donald Trump lost 40 House seats but gained two Senate seats in 2018; Democrats under Barack Obama lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats in 2010, and Democrats under Clinton lost 52 House seats and eight Senate seats in 1994.
The decision to deploy Biden to areas where he won handily in 2020 was made in part because of concern about voter energy in races that Democrats view as must-win. Party officials are also concerned about some candidates who have seen their races tighten in the final days of the campaign.
Biden won New Mexico by nearly 11 percentage points in 2020, but Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is from the state, warned that this election would be close.
"Republicans are catching up to us," she said. "And we can't let that happen."
Fundraising by Ronchetti's campaign has surged amid visits from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Ronchetti also received a social media endorsement from Trump despite his acknowledgment that Biden won in 2020.
Before speaking at the political rally, Biden went to Central New Mexico Community College to tout his student debt relief program, calling it "a game changer for so many people."
Focusing on young voters whose support Democrats are energetically seeking, Biden said, "Your generation is not going to be ignored. You will not be shunned. You will not be silenced."
Nearly 26 million people have applied for student loan forgiveness, up 4 million from two weeks ago. About 16 million applications are expected to be approved by the week's end, but no debt can be forgiven until a legal fight over the program is resolved.
"Republican members of Congress and Republican governors are doing everything they can, including taking us to court, to deny relief, even to their own constituents," Biden said.
Later Thursday, Biden was joining Rep. Mike Levin for a get-out-the vote event at a community college in Oceanside, California. Levin represents a district with a slight Democratic tilt that cuts through San Diego and Orange counties and that Biden carried by double digits in the 2020 presidential election. Republican nominee Brian Maryott has gone after Levin over inflation, gas prices and rising crime.
Biden is to spend part of Friday and Saturday in the Chicago area, where two-term incumbent Rep. Sean Casten is facing a stiff challenge from Republican Keith Pekau as he tries to hang on to a suburban district that Biden won by a double-digit percentage in 2020. The White House has yet to announce Biden's plans for his time in Chicago.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Republican leaders, this week announced an $1.8 million ad buy to assist Pekau, the mayor of south suburban Orland Park. And Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, is due to campaign with Pekau in the district on Friday.
Casten's campaign, in a fundraising email Wednesday, called the crush of super PAC money a "last-ditch effort to buy this seat" and implored his supporters to send him contributions for the campaign's final stretch.
The president on Saturday will head to Pennsylvania to campaign with Obama for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro and Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman.
Pennsylvania Democrats are trying to keep control of the governor's office, which is being vacated by Tom Wolf as he finishes his second term. Fetterman is locked in a tight race with Republican Mehmet Oz, vying for the seat being vacated by the retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
Chris Megerian reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Michael R. Blood in San Juan Capistrano, California; and Sara Burnett in Chicago and Collin Binkley in Washington contributed.