For a politician who spent nearly his entire career in the Senate, Vice President Joe Biden is paying a lot of attention to the House.
Since mid-August, Biden already has appeared at fundraisers for close to a dozen junior House Democrats — almost exclusively first-termers — helping them rake in more than $1 million, according to party officials. He has raised money for the party’s nominee in the upcoming New York special election and did robocalls and radio ads in the last special election, another key upstate New York contest that ultimately produced a Democratic victory. Biden even showed up unexpectedly at the newly minted congressman’s swearing-in party.
And that’s not all: When the party needed a heavyweight this summer to help close the deal with a top recruit who was mulling a challenge to a Pennsylvania Republican incumbent, Biden made the call. A month later, the recruit, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, announced his bid for Congress.
It was yet another sign that as the 2010 election landscape begins to take shape, so too has Biden’s political portfolio. It turns out that after 36 years in the Senate, he is emerging as the patron saint of the party’s vulnerable House freshmen — and a key figure in defending the 79-seat Democratic House majority.
While Biden has actively campaigned or been engaged in several Senate and gubernatorial races, the bulk of his work so far has been on behalf of members involved in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program, which is designed to help vulnerable members in swing districts.
Two weeks ago, the vice president traveled across the Potomac to keynote a three-way fundraiser to boost Virginia Democratic freshmen Reps. Gerry Connolly, Glenn Nye and Thomas Perriello. First-term Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), a weak fundraiser, just got the Biden treatment, and the vice president is scheduled to appear at a $1,000-per-person luncheon for freshman Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) in New York City on Monday.
For his part, Biden has spoken in stark terms about what’s at stake — and why control of the House matters.
“This election is, in a sense, bigger than the last election,” Biden said at a fundraiser in Philadelphia for Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.), another vulnerable member of the Class of 2008.
“If you’re on the other side, what do you want to do?” he continued. “You want to make sure that all those guys who won in close districts last year lose. If you do that, it’s the only hope you have, if you are the other party, of stopping the momentum for the kind of change we ran on and we committed to.”
Biden “recognizes that the midterm elections will not just be a referendum on members of Congress,” said DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen. “It will be a report card on the Obama-Biden administration.”
Part of Biden’s role seems to be reassuring nervous freshmen that if they’re taking politically tough votes to support the administration’s agenda, the White House is going to look out for their interests in 2010.
“He was saying, ‘We know not all these votes are easy, because we’re dealing with the big stuff,’ and we’re not going forget you. ... Just as you were partners by our side, we’ll be there for you, too,’” Connolly recalled. “That’s a very reassuring message.”
The cash, goodwill and publicity that accompany a vice-presidential appearance are, of course, also welcomed.
“His presence gave us access to traditional Democratic contributors all through Central Florida, who were genuinely excited for the opportunity to see the vice president,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who was the first freshman to get Biden in his district.
“It’s a big, big deal for us, just having that visit,” Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) said after Biden helped the rookie congressman raise $75,000 at a Syracuse event. “It shows that I have a good working relationship with the administration.”
Biden’s role as House sugar daddy isn’t exactly new. His predecessor as vice president, Dick Cheney, also helped rake in millions of dollars for Republican incumbents and challengers during his eight years in office.
But Biden brings a different dimension to the traditional partisan politicking that is part of the job description.
His ramped-up presence on the campaign trail offers great value to a White House that is leery of burning Obama’s political capital and placing him in explicitly partisan situations that could sully his reputation.
“The fact that the vice president becomes very active and plays a chief surrogate role enables the president to pick his spots more carefully and remain somewhat above the fray,” said Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University law professor and an expert on the vice presidency. “The fact that President Obama has really cultivated a persona of a person who is above partisan politics means that, increasingly, the partisan portfolio and responsibility fall more to the vice president.”
Biden also offers a talent for retail politics that Cheney, himself a former House member, lacked. At events, Biden revels in the attention and never appears to be in a rush, often taking time to share a moment with each person there.
He is emotional and spontaneous — for better or for worse.
After first-term Rep. Deborah Halvorson (D-Ill.) spoke at her August fundraiser with Biden, the vice president planted a kiss on her head.
“Everybody loved it. He’s a great campaigner. People stood in line for a long time to have their picture taken with him,” Halvorson said. “He is the vice president of the United States, and when you bring that person out to your district, that gives you a lot of credibility, especially a person like him who everyone likes.”
Biden foreshadowed his potential fall itinerary when he told donors at a fundraiser for second-term Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who represents a Republican-leaning seat in Arizona, that the future of the Obama administration’s agenda depends on 35 Democrats who represent districts Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won last November. Those are the seats Biden said the GOP will target in the midterm elections.
“They’re going to put their chips on movement in the 35 seats in the House that have been traditionally Republican districts and trying to take them back,” Biden said. “If they take them back, this is the end of the road for what Barack and I are trying to do. This is their one shot. If they don’t break the back of our effort in this upcoming election, you’re going to see the things we said we’re for happen.”
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas quickly sent out an e-mail mocking Biden’s comments.
“He’s right: This is an historic opportunity,” he said in a fundraising appeal. “This is your chance to definitively tell the Democrats they had their chance and they failed.”
The White House has crafted its strategy for Biden in coordination with the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees. Biden spokesman Jay Carney said his boss will continue doing political events as often as his schedule will allow.
“The vice president is obviously very, very busy with policy issues, but he also very much wants to help, where he can, those Democrats who are up for election in the next cycle,” Carney said.
Southern Connecticut, where Himes is gearing up for a tough and expensive race to win a second term, is among the places where Biden can help. Himes believes Biden’s presence at an event Monday will send an important message.
“One, it shows the White House cares,” he said. “Two, Joe Biden is one of the most interesting guys involved in the leadership of the country, so I know he’s going to draw a lot of interest in my district.”