WASHINGTON — Joe Biden didn’t campaign for Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. The president did not even step foot in the ruby-red state in the countdown to Election Day. Yet touting Beshear’s win on Wednesday, Biden’s press secretary argued that the Democratic governor prevailed not in spite of the president, but thanks to him.
Karine Jean-Pierre said Beshear’s Republican opponent spent millions tying the governor to Biden, meaning “the president was injected into that conversation, into that election.” Central to the effort were his attacks on the “Biden-Beshear agenda.”
It’s a claim the White House was happy to own. “Beshear ran on infrastructure, he ran on lowering costs,” Jean-Pierre said. “Those are the president’s agenda.”
And it’s not just Kentucky where Democrats did well on Tuesday. Democrats in Virginia flipped the House of Delegates, taking control of the state’s Legislature and dealing a blow to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Ohio voted by more than 13 percentage points to enshrine abortion protections in the state’s constitution, a victory for activists in the Republican-leaning state. Democrats expanded their majority in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and added seats in the New Jersey Legislature.
Jean-Pierre said these are the indicators that matter, not the surveys one year out that have prompted handwringing inside the party ahead of a presidential race where Biden is expected to face off against Donald Trump again.
“We have always said that voting matters and polls do not,” Jean-Pierre said. The Biden campaign has acknowledged that they expect the race to be a close election.
Democrats who fear a worst-case scenario next year are drawing different lessons from Beshear’s victory.
“You’ve got a governor who’s extremely well liked,” a Kentucky Democratic strategist said. “It’s completely different than where Biden is, not to mention the polling that just came out of five of the swing states.”
And while “it’s a win for Democrats, it’s not like the president’s name was on the ballot,” said one senior Democratic aide for a lawmaker in a swing state where Biden barely eked out a victory in the last election. “You look at Andy Beshear; he’s a young guy, he didn’t sell out on abortion or trans rights, and he won ‘bigly.’ And his name is not Joe Biden.”
A New York Times/Siena College poll published over the weekend showed Biden trailing Trump in states the president won in 2020, drawing concerns that the president’s re-election campaign was in need of a “defibrillator.” Voters cite Biden’s age as a major factor.
A second Kentucky strategist sounded a note of caution. “Their internal polls had him in double digits,” this person said of Beshear.
Some party operatives were turned off by Biden’s team taking credit for the 2023 election results.
Plenty of Democrats are “irritated by the chest-thumping and celebrating” from the Biden campaign after Tuesday night, said one Democratic operative, who argued that “last night wasn’t a win for Biden.”
Beshear’s success “shows how we should be running someone like him instead,” this person said.
There are caveats to how much Democrats should be celebrating as they look ahead to 2024, analysts warned.
While Democrats have built a durable coalition among voters who regularly turn out, surveys show Biden’s main problems are with irregular voters who have been essential to Democratic success in recent presidential elections.
“Biden’s numbers among the kinds of voters who only show up in presidential elections are much weaker,” said David Wasserman, an election analyst at the Cook Political Report. “The voters who did not show up yesterday but will in 2024 skew younger, they skew noncollege, a little bit more nonwhite than the electorate overall, and they skew independent. Those voters in surveys are quite anti-Biden at the moment, and are surprisingly open to voting to Trump.”
And Biden must win in key swing states to hold onto office.
“We don’t have a national election; we have battleground states,” a Democratic operative and veteran of Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns warned. “You can throw conventional wisdom out the window.”
But this person said Obama faced a grim economic picture as he ran for re-election, and suggested this could provide comfort to Biden as he contends with voters’ deeply pessimistic view of the economy.
“We had it a lot worse,” he said. “Those numbers were tough in 2011. And we managed to overcome that.”
A year out from the 2012 election, polls showed Obama trailing Republican Mitt Romney, including in some battlegrounds.
Kentucky strategists said they worked to keep the race focused on local issues and maintaining close ties to voters.
“We wanted this race to be about Kentucky and keep it Beshear versus [Daniel] Cameron, because we knew that if it was Beshear versus Cameron we were going to win,” a third Kentucky operative said. “Cameron — there was nothing positive about what he was going to do. It was all about stopping Andy and stopping ‘Bidenomics,’ or whatever he was calling it. There was really no plan, and it just didn’t resonate.”
“You’ve got to run on pocketbook issues,” added Jared Smith, who ran Beshear’s successful attorney general campaign in 2015.
One progressive leader urged the party not to take the wrong lessons from Tuesday. “Just like 2022, Democrats are jubilant about victories that happened despite Joe Biden, not because of Joe Biden,” this person said. “We still have a problem at the top of the ticket — an unliked president who is not able to use the bully pulpit to inspire people on domestic issues and who seems weak in the Middle East conflict.”
Responding to the criticism, Andrew Bates, White House deputy press secretary, said Democrats should stop their bellyaches.
“That would be news to Daniel Cameron, who spent over $30 million running against the ‘Biden Beshear Agenda’ and made opposition to the President the centerpiece of his closing argument before losing to ‘Bidenomics’ — his words — and reproductive rights in a deeply conservative state. It would also be news to the Associated Press, who wrote, ‘Biden gets boost with election wins on abortion rights, Kentucky governor vote,'” Bates said. “For whoever said that, there’s a good Harvey Keitel quote: ‘Are you such a f—— loser, you can’t tell when you’ve won?'”
Biden’s campaign declined to comment for this article.
Still, the hunger for alternatives to Biden has some in the party training their sights on Beshear as a future standard-bearer for a Democratic coalition that can win over swing voters while holding firm on issues such as abortion.
“Andy should run for president. Now,” the senior aide to a battleground Democrat said. Biden won “by the skin of his teeth” in key swing states in 2020, the aide said, arguing that Democrats should nominate someone who shows promise for charting a new course for the party instead of threatening retreat.
“Andy would destroy Trump, on optics alone,” the aide said. “He looks good on stage, he sounds good — doesn’t sound like he has dementia. It’s like, ‘OK, he’s from Kentucky, he can’t be that radical.’ Boom. All of a sudden we win Ohio, too, and then we expand the Senate.”
The aide warned of an enthusiasm gap, reflected in exit polling where voters otherwise aligned with Biden say they would prefer another candidate to lead a presidential ticket next year.
In Ohio, only 38% of those who voted to enshrine abortion rights said Biden should run for re-election, according to exit polls. Of those who voted against the referendum, 64% said Trump should run again.
“Looking at Ohio, these issues are popular. But the messenger isn’t popular,” the Democratic aide said.
Already, the win in Kentucky has donors wondering how they can boost Beshear’s national prospects, operatives said, turbocharging background chatter over what a future ticket could look like.
“I’m getting phone calls asking me what to do to start raising money for him,” said the first Kentucky strategist. “Like, you’ve got to get through 2024.”
Future-casting aside, others inside the party have questioned how best to persuade voters of Biden’s message.
Speaking at a panel discussion Tuesday night at Georgetown University, Patti Solis Doyle called “incredibly frustrating” the fact that Biden’s message “is not resonating,” and wondered aloud if voters were failing to hear it for reasons outside the president’s control.
“I’m probably going to get cut out of the Democratic Party for saying this, but … he’s old,” said Solis Doyle, who ran Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2008. “And that overarching issue is clouding everything else, and people cannot see past it. Our voters cannot see past it. And it’s a problem.”
With roughly a year until Election Day, Biden has allies who say he deserves to bask in Democrats’ successes after laying the groundwork.
“He’s the president of the United States, he absolutely should be taking credit,” Rep. Pat Ryan, D-N.Y., told NBC News on Wednesday. “He’s the leader of not only our country, but of our party, and he has been delivering in all these areas. … We’re a team. We’re literally fighting, quite literally for people’s freedoms. And we’re winning.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, called Tuesday’s results “a validation” of Biden’s agenda and said the president understands his base.
Biden “gets all politics is local as well as national,” Murphy said.
Murphy dismissed as “choppy and/or muddled” recent polling that shows Biden trailing Trump in all but one swing state. “I think there’s a lead-lag factor. This is ultimately going to sort itself out,” he said.
Still, Solis Doyle said the party is divided over the conflict in Gaza, which bodes poorly heading into an election year. “We did vote for Joe Biden because he was going to be the boring president. He was going to provide stability and predictability,” she said. “And we’re waking up three years later with wars and there’s a lot of chaos.”
Some Democrats believe a Biden-led ticket is matched only by voters aversion to his predecessor — a potential bright spot, with Trump holding a double-digit polling lead as the current Republican front-runner.
“It’s a rematch nobody wants,” said the second Kentucky operative. “The sense is anybody but Biden and Trump.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com