WASHINGTON – Looking to avert a midterm disaster that would all but end his domestic agenda, President Joe Biden has landed on a message aimed squarely at the political movement of his predecessor.
But he's not mentioning Donald Trump.
Instead, the White House works aggressively to paint Republicans and their policies as an “ultra MAGA agenda” in a push to overcome the president's brutal approval ratings and voters’ frustration with high inflation to help Democrats maintain control of Congress.
“It’s important that we go for someone besides Trump because Trump’s not on the ballot,” said Celinda Lake, a pollster for Biden's 2020 presidential campaign who conducts focus groups with midterm voters. “We’re trying to beat Republicans in 2022 in state legislatures, secretaries of state races, governors races and congressional races."
Rather than calling out Trump by name, Biden targets the Make America Great Again takeover of the Republican Party, casting a range of issues – the fight with Disney World over LGBTQ-related issues, a GOP income tax proposal and a Supreme Court draft opinion against abortion rights – as the product of an increasingly extreme party.
Biden introduced the “ultra-MAGA” label last week, making it a staple in his public remarks since. Other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have picked it up as well. Behind the scenes, the term "ultra MAGA" was the subject of months of polling from Democratic allies, focus groups and meetings among White House officials to fine-tune a strategy to define the opposition. The conclusion: Voters respond more negatively to "MAGA" than Trump.
"The great MAGA king," Biden said in a speech Wednesday in Chicago, referring to the former president.
Democrats are trying to define a clear choice in the midterm elections to avoid a referendum on a struggling presidency. They want voters to see “ultra MAGA” as their alternative. Omitting Trump’s name is meant to reinforce a movement that Democratic strategists said is bigger than Trump – with whom Biden has largely sought to avoid direct conflict since taking office.
The strategy still risks making the midterms about Trump, not the movement he spawned or Democrats' vision for the country. Voters in Virginia last year were unconvinced by Democratic efforts to seize on Trump's unpopularity in the state, and Republican Glenn Youngkin won the gubernatorial victory.
Months of research leads Democrats to 'ultra MAGA'
Biden has ramped up his criticism of Trump’s political movement as several Republican primaries take place this month. Democrats face a possible outcome in November that could leave Biden with a Senate and House controlled by Trump loyalists, virtually ending any chance of the White House passing major legislation for the rest of Biden's term.
Biden crafted the message with White House adviser Mike Donilon, according to an administration official. The rollout followed months of research beginning last fall from the political arm of the left-leaning Center for American Progress that supported the branding. In polling of battleground areas, 81% of independent voters said the Republican Party has “changed" over the past five to 10 years, most saying it’s “change for the worse.”
The voters – surveyed by Democratic pollster Hart Research and Global Strategy Group – said they view Republicans as more “power hungry” and “willing to break the rules” than Democrats. The polling found two-thirds of voters who aren't strong Trump supporters have an unfavorable view of the MAGA movement – only 13% favorable – and “MAGA Republicans” are viewed more negatively than “Trump Republicans” in regards to congressional candidates.
“There is this notion across a wide swath of the electorate that the Republican Party changed. This isn’t the same Republican Party,” said Navin Nayak, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Despite Trump’s departure from the White House, Nayak said voters still see Republicans as a “different, radicalized party,” pointing to the emergence of Trump-allied lawmakers such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
“There’s a recognition that the threats are much broader than Trump,” Nayak said, and the “ultra MAGA” label "told a much broader story that was no longer about one individual but a much broader set of actors.”
Biden first hinted at the term last month during a swing to Western states. “This ain’t your father’s Republican Party,” he said at a fundraiser in Seattle. “This is a MAGA party now. ... These guys are a different breed of cat."
He used the new attack language heavily in a speech Tuesday on his administration’s efforts to tackle 40-year-high inflation while railing on an income tax plan by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., that the White House has worked to make a midterm boogeyman. Scott is the chair this cycle of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the political entity that provides support to Republican Senate nominees.
“It’s the ultra MAGA agenda,” Biden said of Scott's proposal that would have all Americans have "skin in the game" by paying income tax. "I never expected the ultra-MAGA Republicans who seem to control the Republican Party now to have been able to control the Republican Party.”
Strategy fueled by crop of Trump-endorsed candidates
In several states, Trump's hand-picked candidates are likely to win GOP primaries. That outcome sets up a general election dynamic in which elected Democrats and retiring Republicans who supported some of Biden’s priorities could be replaced by Trump-endorsed politicians who centered their campaigns on their relationships with the former president.
“It is about extreme ideology and blind loyalty in this ultra-MAGA crew, where we take a look at someone like a J.D. Vance, who has contorted himself more than a pretzel to win Trump's backing and approval,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton when she ran for president. “So it's more than just saying someone like that is following Trump.”
Vance cruised past a crowded Republican primary field last week in Ohio to become the party’s nominee for the state’s open Senate seat after receiving Trump’s endorsement. He will face off against Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan at the ballot box in November. The winner of that political fight will replace Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who is not seeking reelection.
Vance was the first of several Trump-backed Senate candidates to go before primary voters this month. Trump-supported candidates in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia also face ballot tests in May. In Pennsylvania, Trump endorsed Mehmet Oz in a Republican Senate primary seen until recently as a two-way contest with David McCormick. A third candidate, Kathy Barnette – whom Trump strategist Steve Bannon labeled "ultra-MAGA" because of some of her views – has gained momentum in polls.
Democrats said Barnette's rise is further proof that "MAGA" is bigger than Trump. They seek to make it the alternative to Biden’s proposals to subsidize child care and reduce the cost of prescription drugs.
“My Republican colleagues say these programs to help the working-class and middle-class people – that’s – they say that’s why we have inflation. They’re dead wrong,” Biden said Wednesday in a speech at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ conference in Chicago.
'Ultra MAGA' attacks will backfire, Republicans say
The steady drumbeat is meant to define a faction of Republicans, Lake said, not to call out all Republicans because voters “reject that and think it’s just political.” Although polling shows voters widely know the “MAGA” acronym, it’s slightly less familiar than “Trump Republicans,” Lake said. She said the thinking behind adding "ultra" is to “define it for voters who may be less aware.”
"To him, adding a little ultra to it gives it a little extra pop," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the president.
Republicans accused Biden of abandoning his campaign pledge to unite Americans and said Democrats will be judged by the president's low approval ratings and high inflation. Some Republicans have doubled down on their MAGA credentials since Biden's wave of attacks
"I am ultra MAGA," Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., said. "I'm proud of it."
By centering his attacks on "MAGA," Biden essentially advocates for Democratic candidates to rerun former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's losing strategy against Youngkin, NRSC communications director Chris Hartline said.
"We've already had this theory tested before, and it didn't work. And the states where we're competing are states that are a lot more competitive than Virginia is or should be," Hartline said.
McAuliffe spent much of the gubernatorial race trying to tie Youngkin to Trump, only to back off the approach in the final days of the campaign.
"I think focusing on Trump and Trumpism in whatever form or whatever terminology you use is a strategy that McAuliffe tried and failed," Hartline said.
Biden is building opposition to this presidency by labeling critics of his economic agenda as ultra-MAGA, said Ken Blackwell, a former Trump campaign adviser. Blackwell said that dissatisfaction with gas prices, the cost of groceries and the Biden administration’s immigration policies is widespread, including among Americans who voted for Biden in the past election.
“He's further eroding his base,” Blackwell said. “The policies embraced by these folks are being embraced by large cuts of his own base. So this is backfiring on him.”
Blackwell said the term MAGA is so interchangeable with Trump that Biden’s approach will not help him to avoid a clash with the Republican leader.
“Biden has always talked tough. And he, in fact, has always said that he was ready to go mano a mano with Trump,” Blackwell said. “And now avoiding saying Trump is, in fact, being interpreted across party lines as his being afraid of Trump.”
Political observers also have doubts. Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, said Biden’s “ultra MAGA” push mirrors Democratic efforts to define Republicans as extreme. He said Democrats struggled to execute that argument in past elections and probably will again.
“It’s an attempt to say that while you might have been a Republican in the past, you're not on board with the latest (edition),” Grossman said. “But it’s to the point where the tea party of yesterday is mainstream, and the Trump supporters of yesterday are mainstream as well.”
He said taking on Trump’s MAGA movement still faces the fundamental problem that Trump isn’t on the ballot.
“Midterm elections are referendums on the current president, and this one will be as well,” Grossman said.
The upshot for Biden is that he was able to drive attention to Scott’s tax plan and give it a widely talked about moniker, said Faiz Shakir, an adviser to former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, an independent who represents Vermont in the U.S. Senate.
The challenge for the White House is explaining the practical effects of the plan on working people, he said, and how that differs from the policies that Biden and Democratic candidates seek to implement.
"We can't stop there," Shakir said. "You've then got to push the argument around: Why should a core Democratic voter turn out in this election cycle, beyond just wanting to defeat a Trump, a highly conservative agenda or a MAGA agenda, a Rick Scott agenda or whatever you want to call it?"
Running on Biden’s record is not sufficient in an environment where much of the Democratic base is “probably depressed” that pieces of his agenda such as tax increases on the wealthy and legislation on climate change, voting rights and abortion rights have not passed, Shakir said.
“I think there's still time to do that,” he said. “But that's where I would want to make sure that they're thinking as aggressively about as they are in railing against the highly conservative agenda of the Republicans.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison and Francesca Chambers @fran_chambers
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Ultra MAGA': Inside the White House's new midterm strategy