Sure, they’re in Kentucky to campaign for other people.
But President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will provide a preview of a potential 2020 presidential race as they appear in the state to urge voters in their parties to turn out next month in a hotly-contested congressional race.
Biden, who will attend a fish fry and rally in Owingsville on Friday with Democratic House challenger Amy McGrath, earlier this week didn’t rule out challenging Trump in 2020.
In a speech in London, he didn’t mention Trump by name but warned that “democracy, freedom, and openness” is under threat from what he called “phony nationalism, populism, and xenophobia” in many western democracies.
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Trump, who will campaign in Richmond on Saturday for Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, McGrath’s opponent, has called his potential challengers “real beauties” and dubbed Biden “One Percent Biden” for his lackluster performance in previous presidential bids.
“Sleepy Joe Biden,” Trump said Saturday at a Kansas rally for a Republican congressional candidate. “He had 1 percent with an arrow pointing left. That means 1 percent or less. And then Obama took him off the trash heap. “
Trump and Biden have something riding on their visits.
“The dynamics are far greater than just Barr and McGrath,” said Terry McBrayer, a former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman. “This is playing for 2020 and bragging rights to one of the biggest congressional races in the country.”
Biden and Trump’s visits come as recent polls suggest a tight race. Barr is apparently closing a deficit after he and Republican allies launched a barrage of negative ads that sought to paint McGrath as a liberal and an outsider.
The pugnacious tenor of Trump and Biden’s relationship would stand in stark contrast to McGrath, who has largely declined to launch negative broadsides of her own, instead releasing ads that poke fun at the attack ads.
Both sides say the only thing on the principals’ minds is the Nov. 6 election, which could determine whether Republicans maintain control of the House. Democrats need to win at least 23 Republican-held seats to gain control. Barr’s Lexington-area seat has been a priority for both parties.
“We’ve got two election cycles before 2020,” said Republican Party of Kentucky spokesman Tres Watson, referring to November and the 2019 election in which Kentucky will elect its governor and other constitutional officers, including attorney general.
He noted Kentucky is unlikely to be a presidential battleground in 2020: Kentucky has not backed a Democratic candidate for president since Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996. Trump won the state in 2016 with 63 percent.
“No doubt he will romp to a big victory against whatever Democrat runs against him in 2020,” Watson said of Trump.
Biden supporters say his sole focus is the 2018 election. He has launched a political action committee, American Possibilities, and has been traveling the country supporting Democratic candidates.
“Joe Biden has been doing what he said he was going to do since he walked out of the vice presidential office and that’s focus on rebuilding the Democratic party and going places where he can be helpful,” said Steve Schale, who served as former President Barack Obama’s top Florida strategist in 2008 and 2012.
Schale, who worked on an effort to recruit Biden into the 2016 presidential race, noted that the Scranton, Pa. native has been a valuable asset to Democrats looking to win back some of the rural voters who sided with Trump in 2016.
“He’s one of those people who can go to places like Alabama and Kentucky and be helpful and that’s a role he is embracing as much as he can,” Schale said.
He noted Biden has also traveled to other unlikely presidential battleground states on behalf of Democratic candidates, including North Dakota for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and to Tennessee to help former governor Phil Bredesen’s campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat. He’s also raised money for Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. Trump, too, has campaigned in those states.
“The last few times I’ve seen him, his focus is ‘How can I be helpful in 2018,’ “ Schale said of Biden. “And I expect between now and election day he will continue to do that.”
Yet Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, noted that any good politician is always thinking about the next race.
“Part of Biden’s thinking is going out and road testing his message and appeal, building chits and doing everything a potential candidate would do,” Piper said.
A Morning Consult poll in August found Biden would beat Trump in a hypothetical 2020 election. Of the other oft-named Democratic challengers, only Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vermont, performed marginally better than Biden.
Scott Jennings, a close McConnell ally, said he’s not convinced that Biden will be a Democratic presidential contender.
“It just strikes me as no way possible that the Democrats are not going to run some far left wing loony type and I don’t think that’s what Biden is selling,” Jennings said. He suggested Trump accuser and adult film actress Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti is a better match for Trump.
“Much of the 2020 Democratic primary will be a race looking for a candidate they think can out-trump Trump on tactics and willingness to go there and Avenatti looks like the guy who is nimble enough,” Jennings said.
Still, Biden, who on the website for his political action committee website has said he’s sick of the “negativity, the pettiness, the small-mindedness of our politics,” has mused about physically taking on Trump.
At a Florida rally earlier this year, Biden accused Trump of being a bully, citing lewd comments that then-candidate Trump made in a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape about grabbing women in private places without their permission.
Biden suggested if the two were in high school he would have taken Trump “behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”
Trump on Saturday night bragged that he’d win.
“Remember he challenged me to a fight,” Trump said of Biden in Topeka. “ ‘I’d like to take him behind the barn. ‘ I’d love that. That wouldn’t last long. That would not last long.”