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Why Pennsylvania is so personally, politically important to ‘Scranton Joe’

President Biden has spent more time in Pennsylvania during his presidency than any other state besides his home locale of Delaware, and Democratic party operatives and insiders say he’s clung tight to his birth state for good reason. 

Pennsylvania is home to a critical midterm Senate pickup opportunity for Democrats in the race between Lt. Gov John Fetterman (D) and Republican Mehmet Oz. The state was also pivotal to Biden’s presidential win in 2020, as well as Democratic victories in the 2018 midterms and — importantly — losses in the 2016 election that put former President Trump in the White House. 

But more than anything, Democrats say “Scranton Joe” has a special understanding of voters in the Keystone State. 

“Pennsylvania is personal to Joe Biden. It’s not at all a coincidence to me that he spends so much time there,” said Tom Perez, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who is also a co-chairman of the Democratic group American Bridge. “You can take Joe Biden out of Pennsylvania, but you can’t take the Scranton out of Joe.” 

On Monday, Biden will head to Milwaukee and Pittsburgh to attend Labor Day festivities, marking his third stop in Pennsylvania in the course of one week. He spoke about crime prevention and gun safety in Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday and two days later delivered a prime-time address railing against Trump and “MAGA Republicans” at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  

David Urban, a GOP strategist who served as Trump’s 2016 senior adviser in Pennsylvania, observed that there are a number of Democrat-held House seats in Pennsylvania that the GOP could flip in November and that Biden’s trips signal an understanding among Democrats that they need to “fight back or die.”

Mark Knoller, a veteran White House correspondent who chronicles the details of presidential travel, said Biden has been to Pennsylvania 16 times since taking office, the second-highest number of visits behind Biden’s home state of Delaware, to which he has traveled 50 times during his presidency.

But even those who support Biden say he needs to spend some time going to other key states. Republican strategist Susan Del Percio, who supported Biden in the 2020 presidential race against Trump, said it’s “safe” and “convenient” for the White House to send Biden to the Keystone State.

Still, Del Percio added, “I think they need to diversify.” 

“Three visits in a week? That’s a bit much,” she said. “Joe from Scranton is now the President of the United States, which means he has all the trappings of the Oval Office and the world stage. 

“He can’t revive that like he did in 2020,” Del Percio said. “Frankly he has not been that great speaking off the cuff and while he thinks he has that role to play, it’s not the role he should be playing.” 

Another strategist agreed, saying “the White House should be getting creative” about the optics and where they send Biden. 

“It looks lazy,” the strategist said of the president’s frequent trips to the state. “It’s an easy, convenient place to send him but there are so many other places he can and should be going.”  

But the trips are also important for Biden’s reelection ambitions, given recent polls showing him trailing Trump in Pennsylvania in a hypothetical 2024 rematch between the two men.

An Emerson College poll out late last month showed that Biden had a 39 percent approval rating in the state, while 57 percent disapproved of Biden’s role as president. The survey showed Trump leading Biden among Pennsylvania voters, 47 percent to 42 percent. 

“It is a short term electoral imperative to help us flip that seat, and it is a longer term for 2024 imperative to make sure we are holding the governor’s seat in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin so that we are best positioned for the reelect,” Perez, who served as Democratic National Committee chairman from 2017 to 2021, said of Biden’s Pennsylvania-heavy travel schedule. 

Democrats are increasingly hopeful of the possibility that Fetterman tops Oz in the Pennsylvania Senate race to fill the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R). Polls have shown Fetterman leading Oz by a handful of points.

Even with Biden’s appearances in the state, Fetterman hasn’t fully embraced the president. He was unable to attend the event in Wilkes-Barre but plans to meet with Biden in Pittsburgh on Labor Day. A Fetterman spokesman said that the Democratic candidate would press Biden on decriminalizing marijuana when the two meet. 

“Fetterman is not glued to Biden, but he’s not avoiding Biden,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, describing the Pennsylvania seat as a pickup for Democrats “in the swingiest state you’ll find.”

Polls have also shown Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) leading Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano in the state’s gubernatorial contest. 

Longer term, it’s important for Biden to lay the groundwork for the 2024 presidential race, especially after the last races for the White House, strategists say. Trump won the state narrowly in 2016 and while Biden won the state by more than 80,000 votes, his rival was competitive in Pennsylvania.

Biden delivered a speech from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on Thursday in which he excoriated Trump and GOP candidates and lawmakers aligned with him as threats to democracy and the country itself, solidifying his midterm messaging but also offering a preview of his 2024 pitch should he follow through with plans to run for a second term.  

Urban, the Republican strategist, called Biden’s speech in Philadelphia “politically tone deaf,” criticizing the content and stagecraft and noting that it took place at the same time as two major college football games in the state. 

“Who’s going to watch the president when these two exciting games are on?” he asked.

Notably, Trump also made an appearance in Pennsylvania this week at a rally on Saturday evening to support Oz and Mastriano, showcasing the attention that the former president is also giving to the Keystone State. 

“The last two elections have shown that it is now a swing state,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau, adding that it’s a must win along with Michigan and Wisconsin. “And I think in some ways, Pennsylvania is the crown jewel of those three.”   

As Biden’s poll numbers rebound, Mollineau added that Pennsylvania is “likely more friendly territory for him than other places in the country right now.”

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