A day after meeting with top congressional leaders, President Joe Biden headed to New York’s Hudson Valley to make the case for a clean debt limit increase on the home turf of one of the 18 Republicans representing districts the Democratic president carried in 2020.
Biden spoke in Valhalla, N.Y., at the southern tip of the district of first-term Rep. Mike Lawler, who holds a Hudson Valley seat that is a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats in 2024. Lawler is No. 5 on CQ Roll Call’s most recent list of the 10 most vulnerable House incumbents, which is led by a fellow New Yorker, Rep. George Santos, who was taken into federal custody Wednesday after being indicted on 13 counts of alleged corruption and related offenses.
Lawler was in the audience at Biden’s event at Westchester Community College, which featured the president blasting the recent House-passed bill that Lawler supported pairing a slew of spending controls with a debt limit increase.
“He’s not one of these MAGA Republicans,” Biden said, comparing the freshman Republican to those he used to serve alongside in the Senate and could work with.
Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, responded to that line on Twitter by noting the president is not actually a spokesman for the House GOP campaign arm. He also tweeted a news release from House Democrats’ campaign arm that had branded Lawler “a rubber stamp for the GOP’s far-right extremist agenda.”
Biden “told me he wasn’t here to put pressure on me or hurt me in any way. And, obviously, you heard his comments,” Lawler told reporters after the event.
“I’m sure after speaking with me he recognizes, you know, just because you’re supporting legislation doesn’t make you an extremist,” Lawler said. “This bill that we passed was designed to save the American taxpayers $4.8 trillion over 10 years. We cannot continue to spend and borrow and print new money at these levels, period. And, you know, I mean, the Joe Biden of old knows that you have to negotiate, you have to work together in a bipartisan way, and I think, frankly, he appreciated the fact that I showed up.”
The president was introduced by a schoolteacher, and part of his speech focused on potential cuts to education personnel under the GOP bill.
“It’s important for the American people to know what’s at stake. This isn’t just a theoretical debate going on in Washington. The decisions we make are going to have real impact on real people’s lives,” Biden said.
“They’re literally, not figuratively, holding the economy hostage,” Biden said of House Republicans.
The president plans to meet with congressional leaders again on Friday.
To be sure, when the president travels, he is not just speaking to the audience in attendance or the local media market, though opting to give Wednesday’s speech in a district that the president carried in 2020 and is now represented by a Republican sends a statement in its own right.
The Hudson Valley has long sent a breed of centrist Republicans to Congress, including Hamilton Fish IV, who served for decades and rose to become ranking member of the Judiciary Committee in the 1980s.
Biden’s trip to New York also includes some fundraising after he leaves Westchester County, with the president scheduled to participate in two campaign receptions in New York City before returning to the White House.
Lawler narrowly defeated then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney last year, but Democrats are hopeful that next year they can win back the redistricted seat, which Biden would have won by 10 points in 2020. Outside groups spent $13.7 million in the district in 2022. Of that amount, about $8.8 million was spent attacking Maloney, including by the NRCC and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC allied with House Republican leadership.
Lawler appears to be taking his reelection seriously. He reported raising $849,000 in the first quarter of this year and had $739,000 on hand at the end of March. Of the 18 times Biden has made his position known on House legislation this year, Lawler voted to support Biden twice and broke with the GOP majority when he did it, according to CQ Roll Call vote studies. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 2024 race in the 17th District as a Toss-up.
Lawler could benefit from what may be a competitive Democratic primary. Liz Gereghty, the sister of Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, launched a campaign on Tuesday. Former Rep. Mondaire Jones, who previously represented part of the district, could also get into the race. Jones opted to run in a crowded primary in the 10th District, covering parts of New York City, after Maloney said he would run in the 17th District. Jones lost that primary to Rep. Dan Goldman.
Jones also attended Biden’s speech on Wednesday.
House Majority Forward, the nonprofit wing of House Democrats’ leading super PAC, released polling by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, this week showing Lawler had a 32 percent approval rating based on a survey of 506 voters in the district conducted May 5 and 6.
House Majority Forward and the NRCC both launched ad campaigns on Tuesday supporting their party’s position on the Republicans’ debt ceiling bill. The NRCC announced a five-figure ad campaign targeting 35 vulnerable Democrats, while House Majority Forward is moving forward with a $1 million digital, research and messaging campaign criticizing Republicans for proposed cuts to government programs.
Warming up the crowd, Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman called for voting Republicans out in 2024, veering into an overtly political lane that Biden and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand avoided at the official event.
“Republicans don’t give a damn about our children, and if you don’t care about our children, then you don’t care about our country,” he said.
Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who is running for reelection, focused on the need to raise the debt limit to avoid a federal default.
“Let’s cut the crap, Speaker McCarthy. Pay the debts. Make sure our full faith and credit is good,” Gillibrand said.