PITTSBURGH — The Democratic Party’s most prominent figures warned that abortion, Social Security and democracy itself are at risk as they labored to overcome fierce political headwinds — and an ill-timed misstep from President Joe Biden — over the final weekend of the 2022 midterm elections.
“Sulking and moping is not an option,” former President Barack Obama told several hundred voters on a blustery day in Pittsburgh.
“On Tuesday, let’s make sure our country doesn’t get set back 50 years,” Obama said. "The only way to save democracy is if we, together, fight for it."
Obama was the first president, but not last, to rally voters Saturday in Pennsylvania, a pivotal state as voters decide control of Congress and key statehouses. Polls across America will close on Tuesday, but more than 36 million people have already voted.
By day's end, voters in the Keystone State also were to have heard directly from Biden as well as former President Donald Trump. And former President Bill Clinton was campaigning in New York.
Each was appearing with local candidates, but their words echoed across the country as the parties sent out their best to deliver a critical closing argument.
Not everyone, it seemed, was on message, however.
Even before arriving in Pennsylvania, Biden was dealing with a fresh political mess after upsetting some in his party for promoting plans to shut down fossil fuel plants in favor of green energy. While he made the comments in California the day before, the fossil fuel industry is a major employer in Pennsylvania.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the president owed coal workers across the country an apology.
“Being cavalier about the loss of coal jobs for men and women in West Virginia and across the country who literally put their lives on the line to help build and power this country is offensive and disgusting,” Manchin said.
The White House said Biden’s words were “twisted to suggest a meaning that was not intended; he regrets it if anyone hearing these remarks took offense” and that he was “commenting on a fact of economics and technology.”
Democrats are deeply concerned about their narrow majorities in the House and Senate as voters sour on Biden’s leadership amid surging inflation, crime concerns and widespread pessimism about the direction of the country. History suggests that Democrats, as the party in power, will suffer significant losses in the midterms.
Obama was accompanying Senate nominee John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor who represents his party's best chance to flip a Republican-held seat. Later Saturday, they were to appear in Philadelphia with Biden and Josh Shapiro, the nominee for governor.
Former President Donald Trump will finish the day courting voters in a working-class region in the southwestern corner of the state Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Senate nominee, and Doug Mastriano, who running for governor.
The attention on Pennsylvania underscores the stakes in 2022 and beyond for the tightly contested state. The Oz-Fetterman race could decide the Senate majority — and with it, Biden's agenda and judicial appointments for the next two years. The governor's contest will determine the direction of state policy and control of the state's election infrastructure heading into the 2024 presidential contest.
Shapiro, the state attorney general, leads in polls over Mastriano, a state senator and retired Army colonel who some Republicans believe is too extreme to win a general election in a state Biden narrowly carried two years ago.
Polls show a closer contest to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
In Pittsburgh, the gusting wind toppled several American flags from behind the podium as Fetterman spoke.
“Today, Dr. Oz is going to be standing with Donald Trump,” Fetterman said, not noticing the fallen flags.
Obama acknowledged that voters are anxious after suffering through “some tough times” in recent years, citing the pandemic, rising crime and surging inflation.
“The Republicans like to talk about it, but what’s their answer, what’s their economic policy?” Obama asked. “They want to gut Social Security. They want to gut Medicare. They want to give rich folks and big corporations more tax cuts.”
Obama and Fetterman hugged on stage after the speeches were over.
Saturday marked Obama's first time campaigning in Pennsylvania this year, though he has been the party's top surrogate in the final sprint to Election Day. He campaigned in recent days in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona, while Biden has spent more time in Democratic-leaning states where he's more welcome.
Biden opened his day in Illinois campaigning with Rep. Lauren Underwood, a two-term suburban Chicago lawmaker in a close race.
The president ticked through his administration’s achievements, including the Inflation Reduction Action, passed in August by the Democratic-led Congress. It includes several health care provisions popular among elderly people and the less well-off, including a $2,000 cap on out-of-pocket medical expenses and a $35 monthly cap per prescription of insulin. The new law also requires companies that raise prices faster than overall inflation to pay Medicare a rebate.
“I wish I could say Republicans in Congress helped make it happen,” Biden said of the legislation that passed along party lines.
Yet his comments from the day before about the energy industry — and Manchin's fierce response — may have been getting more attention.
“It’s also now cheaper to generate electricity from wind and solar than it is from coal and oil,” Biden said Friday in Southern California. “We’re going to be shutting these plants down all across America and having wind and solar.”
Pennsylvania has largely transitioned away from coal, but fossil fuel companies remain a major employer in the state.
The White House has worried privately for weeks that concerns about Fetterman's health might undermine his candidacy. Fetterman is still recovering from a stroke he suffered in May. He jumbled words and struggled to complete sentences in his lone debate against Oz last month, although medical experts say he's recovering well from the health scare.
Obama addressed Fetterman’s stroke directly.
“John’s stroke did not change who he is. It didn’t change what he cares about,” he said.
Despite his lingering health challenges, Fetterman railed against Oz and castigated the former New Jersey resident as an ultrawealthy carpetbagger who will say or do anything to get elected.
“I’ll be the 51st vote to eliminate the filibuster, to raise the minimum wage,” Fetterman said. “Please send Dr. Oz back to New Jersey.”
Oz has worked to craft a moderate image in the general election and focused his attacks on Fetterman's progressive positions on criminal justice and drug decriminalization. Still, Oz has struggled to connect with some voters, including Republican voters who think he’s too close to Trump, too liberal or inauthentic.
Trump's late rally in Latrobe is part of a late blitz that will also take him to Florida and Ohio. He's hoping a strong GOP showing will generate momentum for the 2024 run that he's expected to launch in the days or weeks after polls close.
Trump has been increasingly explicit about his plans.
At a rally Thursday night in Iowa, traditionally home of the first contest on the presidential nominating calendar, Trump repeatedly referenced his 2024 White House ambitions.
After talking up his first two presidential runs, he told the crowd: “Now, in order to make our country successful and safe and glorious, I will very, very, very probably do it again, OK? Very, very, very probably. Very, very, very probably.”
“Get ready, that’s all I’m telling you. Very soon,” he said.
Madhani reported from Joliet, Illinois, and Peoples from New York. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections. And follow the AP’s election coverage of the 2022 elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.