Biden looks to shore up Democratic 'blue wall' as he announces millions for projects

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President Joe Biden visits his Wisconsin election campaign office Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is getting to be a familiar face around the Great Lakes — and with a November rematch against Donald Trump looming, that's no accident.

He started a two-day swing through Wisconsin and Michigan in Milwaukee on Wednesday as he tried to shore up a Democratic “blue wall” and build momentum for his reelection campaign after a fiery State of the Union address last week.

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Aiming to show voters that his administration has improved their lives, Biden used the stop to announce $3.3 billion for infrastructure projects in disadvantaged communities, including $36 million to reconnect parts of Milwaukee's 6th Street, which had been divided by highway construction in the 1960s.

“We’re rebuilding the roads, we’re filling in the cracks in the sidewalk, we’re creating spaces to live and work and play safely, and to breathe clean air, and to shop at a nearby grocery stocked with fresh and healthy food,” he said.

“You’ve lived and felt decisions made decades ago," Biden said. "Today, today, we’re making decisions to transform your lives for decades to come.”

The money comes from the bipartisan infrastructure law that Biden signed in the first year of his presidency.

Biden told voters that Donald Trump, his Republican predecessor and likely opponent in this year's election, had promised infrastructure improvements but never delivered.

“He didn’t get a single thing done," Biden said. "Not one.”

Biden and Trump clinched their parties' nominations on Tuesday after decisive victories in the primaries, setting up what promises to be a grinding rematch between the two men.

Much of that battle will be fought in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as Pennsylvania, which was Biden's first stop after his State of the Union. They're collectively known as a “blue wall" because of their historic support for Democrats.

Trump flipped all three to win the White House in 2016, but Biden took them back four years ago and likely needs to hold them if he's going to secure a second term.

Biden also plans to travel to North Carolina and other battleground states in the coming weeks. He has been overseeing openings of field offices as his campaign hires and trains organizers and begins assembling volunteers.

That's meant as a show of political organizing strength — an area where the president has so far outpaced Trump, who has been occupied for months with a competitive primary and four ongoing criminal cases in which he faces 91 felony counts.

Biden's reelection campaign hopes on-the-ground organization can neutralize the president's low approval ratings and polling showing that a majority of voters — even a majority of Democrats — don't want him to seek reelection.

“This particular president is a really impressive retail politician. He doesn’t just do the rally and leave,” said Jim Paine, the mayor of Superior, Wisconsin, a port city on the border with Minnesota. Biden has been there twice, including in January to promote a bridge built as part of the infrastructure law.

“He really puts time in with people, listens to individual stories, he talks about his own life one-on-one,” Paine said.

The $3.3 billion in grants announced on Wednesday covers 132 total projects, including in Atlanta; Los Angeles and Philadelphia as well as Birmingham, Alabama; Syracuse, New York; and Toledo, Ohio. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that some of the projects are relatively modest and can be completed in “short order,” while others are “massive and ambitious undertakings that will take many years.”

Biden visited the opening of his campaign headquarters in Milwaukee, where nearly 40% of residents are Black, rather than Madison, the state capital that typically serves as the fulcrum for Democratic campaigns.

He said volunteers and staff in places like Milwaukee would help ensure his victory over Trump.

“This is how we are going to win again," he said. “A lot of you helped me in 2020, and we made sure he was a loser and is a loser and we’re going to make sure that happens again, right?”

It’s Biden’s ninth visit to Wisconsin as president and his fifth to Milwaukee, where Republicans are holding their national convention this summer. Chris LaCivita, an adviser to Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson 's successful reelection campaign in 2022, is also a top Trump campaign aide — another signal that the state is a top GOP priority.

On Thursday, the president heads to Saginaw, north of Detroit, which has high concentrations of Black and union-affiliated voters. It was once reliably Democratic, but swung to Trump in 2016 and only narrowly backed Biden four years ago.

Biden and top advisers, both from the campaign and the White House, have made frequent trips to Michigan recently amid criticism of his administration's handling of the war in Gaza, visiting places like Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with the nation's highest concentration of Arab Americans.

His challenge was demonstrated in Michigan's Democratic presidential primary last month, when activists promoted an “uncommitted” movement that garnered about 13% of the vote.

Thursday's visit won't take him to Dearborn, but will instead help Biden connect with key constituencies in other parts the state. The campaign promises to open more than 15 Michigan field offices, complementing the 44 it and the state Democratic Party have in Wisconsin.

Early polls have shown Biden faring better against Trump in Wisconsin than Michigan. Richard Czuba, a longtime Michigan pollster, said far more potentially decisive in November than supporters of the “uncommitted” movement during the Democratic primary are many “double-unfavorable" voters. He described those as state residents who plan to vote in November but don’t like either Trump or Biden.

“If they are persuaded to vote for Joe Biden, Joe Biden will win the state of Michigan,” Czuba said. “But, for Donald Trump, I think it’s an easier assignment to make sure that those double-unfavorables get divided.”

One way Biden can win over such voters might be to make the race about issues like abortion rights, rather than himself, Czuba said. He noted that the president's criticism of a suggestion by Trump that he’d allow Russia "to do whatever the hell they want" to some NATO allies might resonate with Michigan’s large Polish-American population as well as immigrants from the Baltic nations.

Biden’s campaign moved quickly to highlight those comments in a three-week, six-figure digital ad campaign that targeted roughly 900,000 Baltic Americans in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Still, that may not be enough for some voters in Michigan, where apathy about the Trump-Biden rematch is palpable. Said Saginaw resident Jeffrey Bulls: “I probably will be skipping that top spot on the ballot."


Associated Press writers Joey Cappelletti in Saginaw, Michigan, and Josh Boak and Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.

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