EDISON, N.J. >> First lady Jill Biden campaigned today for Democrats in governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey, saying “this election will set a course for a year from now” during her first political trip of her husband’s presidency.
Biden spoke at an early voting rally at Middlesex College in Edison, New Jersey, where Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is running against Republican Jack Ciattarelli, an ex-state Assembly member. She’s also hitting an event in suburban Richmond, Virginia’s capital, alongside Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor who is running to regain the post and facing a tighter race than expected.
“We can’t get complacent. We have to get to work,” said the first lady, who was born in New Jersey and clapped on stage along to “It’s My Life,” by New Jersey icon and Biden supporter Jon Bon Jovi. The loudest applause of the event came when Biden joked, “Heck, today’s Friday. So go grab a beer and go vote.”
Democrats, eager to boost turnout for the off-year elections, dispatched the first lady to rally support in the Nov. 2 governors’ races. It marks the first time that Jill Biden has been back on the campaign trial since stumping for her husband in last year’s presidential campaign, and it underscores the political stakes for the White House.
In Virginia especially, which President Joe Biden won by a comfortable 10 percentage points last year, a defeat in the governor’s race could spell trouble for Democrats in the 2022 midterms, when control of Congress is at stake.
Tammy R. Vigil, a professor of media science at Boston University, said first ladies have routinely traveled to boost their party’s leading candidates since Laura Bush — who, like many presidential spouses, often had higher approval ratings than her husband — began frequently campaigning for key Republicans during midterms and other races.
“You get a lot more emotional bang for the buck,” said Vigil, author of a 2019 book on Melania Trump and Michelle Obama that details how a “new era” of first ladies have expanded their political influence. “You get the positivity of her favorability compared to her husband. You get her being able to talk about issues in different kinds of ways than an elected official might be able to. And you get a lot of that relatability factor.”
In Jill Biden’s role as first lady, she has regularly traveled the country — including to reliably red states — to promote such issues as improving public education and community college, reopening schools amid the pandemic and urging people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
She has also continued to teach writing and English at Northern Virginia Community College, where she’s held a position since 2009 — the first first lady to leave the White House to log hours at a full-time job.
McAuliffe said President Joe Biden would be coming to Virginia in the coming days, as will former President Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has risen to national prominence. McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic Party powerbroker and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, is squaring off against Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former businessman and political newcomer.
The president’s approval ratings have fallen to some of the lowest levels of his White House tenure amid congressional fights over infrastructure and voting rights.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted Thursday that “the president, of course, wants former Gov. McAuliffe to be the future governor of Virginia.”
But she also appeared to be attempting to lower expectations about whether what happens in Virginia next month could be an indicator of national Democratic struggles heading into the 2022 midterms — when the party’s narrow control of both chambers of Congress is at stake.
“I will leave it to other outside analysts to convey that off-year elections are often not a bellwether,” Psaki said.
McAuliffe is counting on women, especially those in the suburbs, where Republican candidates saw their support wane during the Trump administration. Vigil said that is precisely “the constituency you bring the first lady in for.”
“Their whole persona is often built on the idea of connecting with constituents. Especially female constituents,” she said, calling the dynamic “annoying to me that that’s the case because these first ladies are political actors and citizens in and of themselves, and yet they get pushed into this narrow corner of, ‘Oh, the woman vote.’”
“It does make sense,” Vigil added. “It’s just kind of uncomfortable in the modern era to have that be so limited.”
The first lady’s travels come as the president spent Friday in Connecticut promoting a massive spending plan that Democrats are trying to muscle through Congress despite deep divisions within their own ranks over the final price tag.