Battle for Congress seeks a slice of the spotlight as Democrats ‘convene’ to anoint Biden, Harris

Party’s most vulnerable senator, Doug Jones of Alabama, is speaking Monday

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, center, is addressing the Democratic National Convention this week, as Democrats nominate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, as their presidential nominee.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, center, is addressing the Democratic National Convention this week, as Democrats nominate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, as their presidential nominee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 17, 2020 at 6:30am

The presidential race will take center stage during this week’s Democratic National Convention, but the battle for Congress will also seek some of the spotlight as Democrats gather virtually.

The party will formally nominate former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris as its presidential and vice presidential nominees, kicking off an 11-week sprint until Election Day.

The convention will seek to cast a unifying vision for the country, and highlight the stakes of the upcoming election. Since the early days of the presidential primary, Biden has emphasized the importance of Democrats controlling Congress, not just the White House.

Biden served in both the majority and the minority during his 36 years as a senator, and he saw how presidential candidates helped and hurt colleagues running on the same ballot. This year, he tried to get Democratic voters to keep that in mind as they picked a nominee.

“It’s not going to be enough just to be able to beat the president,” Biden said at an Iowa campaign event in January. “Who is going to be most helpful in helping us win back the United States Senate and keep the House?”

So the fight for Congress will get some recognition during the four-day party event, which includes roundtables and virtual meetings during the day and a two-hour prime-time program at night.

Alabama Democrat Doug Jones, the most vulnerable senator up for reelection, is set to speak Monday night in prime time as part of the “We the People” program that shows a broad coalition uniting around the Biden-Harris ticket. Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is expected to emphasize the importance of flipping the Senate and protecting voting by mail in a speech Monday.

Two targeted House Democrats who backed Biden during the primary will be among the 17 "rising stars" to participate in the convention keynote address, the DNC announced Sunday.

Texas Rep. Colin Allred, co-president of the freshman class, is running for reelection in a Dallas-based district that Trump lost by 2 percentage points in 2016. Allred encouraged his fellow freshmen to weigh in on the presidential race.

Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, a Marine veteran, will also participate in the keynote. Lamb was among a group of freshmen with military backgrounds who endorsed BIden early on in the presidential race.

Biden campaigned for Lamb in 2018, when Lamb pulled off an upset by winning a special election in a western Pennsylvania House district Trump carried by 20 points. Lamb later won a full term in a new district that Trump would have won by 2 points due to a redrawn congressional map.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi will speak Tuesday and Wednesday night, respectively. Other lawmakers, including Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos of Illinois, will be participating in virtual “watch parties” in states across the country. Bustos will headline a watch party in Iowa, where Democrats are working to unseat GOP Sen. Joni Ernst while defending three House seats that President Donald Trump carried in 2016.

Democratic consultant Ian Russell said he expects the battle for Congress to come up during the convention, especially since Biden has long been invested in down-ballot races.

“Biden has always been a team player,” said Russell, a former political director at the DCCC. “When he was vice president, he was very involved in candidate recruitment of House and Senate candidates and very active in campaigning for them.” 

Biden was a prolific surrogate in 2018, traveling to 24 states to campaign for 65 candidates. But some of those lawmakers who are facing tough races this November may be avoiding this week’s convention to distance themselves from the national party. 

“At the end of the day, the convention is at its basic level a party business meeting and a party messaging meeting,” Russell said. “And in some districts being seen as participating in party business or party messaging is just not helpful.”

Limited involvement 

The political risk of being tied to the national party could explain why there weren't many vulnerable lawmakers included in an initial list of convention speakers, except for Jones, Allred and Lamb.

This year, it may be easier for endangered members of Congress to skip the convention with no massive in-person event and condensed prime-time speeches due to the coronavirus pandemic. In other words, certain lawmakers won’t be conspicuously absent from the convention hall in Milwaukee.

Some members of Congress in tough races are participating in the virtual watch parties, including freshman Reps. Susie Lee of Nevada and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, who both represent districts Trump won in 2016. Trump carried Lee’s 3rd District by 1 point, and he won Spanberger’s 7th District by 7 points.

Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford, who is a GOP target even though Trump lost his district, will also be participating in a watch party, which will feature local and state officials speaking on state-specific issues.

Asked why Horsford wanted to participate in the watch party, campaign spokesman Jeremy Levinson said in an email that Horsford “was an early supporter of Joe Biden because he recognizes how high the stakes are in this election and the necessity for a change in national leadership.”

“We will do what it takes to make sure Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are in the White House come January,” Levinson wrote.

While some vulnerable House Democrats may be participating in watch parties, Jones is so far the only Democrat in a competitive Senate race with a prime-time speaking role. He’s currently slotted to appear the same night as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

In addition to Sanders, the lineup as of Friday night included several of Biden’s rivals for the nomination, but not former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper or Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who are both now in hotly contested Senate races. Neither of their campaigns responded to requests for comment about their involvement in the convention. 

After the DNC announced that Jones would be addressing the convention, Republicans suggested the senator may be auditioning for a position in a potential Biden Cabinet, since he faces a tough reelection race in ruby-red Alabama. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his race Lean Republican.

Despite his vulnerability in November, Jones’ speaking slot may not be surprising given his ties to Biden. Their relationship dates back to when Biden served on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Jones served as a committee staffer while working for Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin.

Biden campaigned for Jones during his upset special election victory in 2017. And Biden escorted Jones through the Senate chamber when he was sworn into office. Jones endorsed Biden the day he launched his presidential campaign, tweeting, “The quality that makes Joe stand out is his ability to bring people together to find common ground while standing up for what he believes is right. We need to listen to each other & get things done for working people.”

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