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Gloves off, Biden embraces tough tone on ‘MAGA Republicans’

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks to reporters after meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Waldorf Astoria Jeddah Qasr Al Sharq hotel, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Biden is ending his COVID-19 isolation after testing negative for the virus on Tuesday, July 26, and again on Wednesday, July 27. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — In recent days, President Joe Biden has sharpened his attacks against Donald Trump and the so-called MAGA Republicans for posing a threat to democracy. He’s likened the philosophy undergirding the dominant strain of the modern-day GOP to “semi-fascism.”

And Democrats are taking notice.

The gloves-off, no-holds-barred approach from Biden as of late has emboldened Democrats across the country, rallying the party faithful ahead of the November elections even as his harshest rhetoric makes some vulnerable incumbents visibly uncomfortable.

Biden’s increasingly stark warnings about Trump-fueled elements of the Republican Party are making up the core part of his midterm message, combined with repeated reminders to voters about recent Democratic accomplishments and a promise that democracy can still produce results for the American people. But it’s the blistering statements from Biden about his predecessor and adherents of the “Make America Great Again” philosophy that have given many Democrats a bolt of fresh energy as they campaign to keep control of Congress.

“It’s a particularly strong issue for our base,” said Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, who leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm of Senate Democrats. “Folks want us, want people to show that there is a clear contrast in the election between where Democrats are and Republicans have been.”

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., noted that “politics is somewhat like a team sport, and the president is the quarterback.”

“The team is not going to fight hard if they don’t see the team leader fighting hard,” said Khanna, who backed Bernie Sanders during the 2020 presidential primaries but has since been a vocal liberal defender of Biden.

Biden’s forceful campaign-year posture comes as Democrats are feeling more optimistic about the midterms, when the party controlling the White House has historically faced losses in Congress. A combination of legislative accomplishments, polarizing Republican candidates and voter fury stoked by the overturning of Roe vs. Wade have Democrats feeling they could see smaller losses in the House than initially anticipated, while retaining their barebones majority in the Senate.

The president began road-testing his midterm message at a rally in the Washington suburbs late last month, as he railed against a Republican ideology that he said largely resembled “semi-fascism.” The White House chose Philadelphia’s Independence Hall as the backdrop for last week’s address that outlined the danger that Trump’s “extreme ideology” posed to the functioning of U.S. democracy.

And in a pair of Labor Day events in critical midterm battlegrounds, Biden continued to hammer the contrast while becoming even more comfortable in invoking his predecessor, whom he had avoided referring to by name for much of his presidency.

“You can’t call yourself a democracy when you don’t, in fact, count the votes that people legitimately cast and count that as what you are,” Biden said Monday in front of a union crowd in Pittsburgh. “Trump and the MAGA Republicans made their choice. We can choose to build a better America or we can continue down this sliding path of oblivion to where we don’t want to go.”

Biden will headline another political event Thursday, hosted by the Democratic National Committee in suburban Maryland. There, the president will speak about “the choice before Americans” on issues of abortion, Social Security and Medicare, democracy, school safety and climate, and how “extreme MAGA Republicans are working to take away our rights,” according to a Biden adviser who requested anonymity to preview his remarks. That will be followed by a trip to Ohio on Friday, a state where the Senate contest between Democrat Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. Vance is becoming increasingly competitive.

Those close to Biden say the president has never shied away from a political fight.

“He’s always made the case very aggressively when he thinks the other side is wrong,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who has known Biden since the 1980s. “I think he’s always tried to lift up the country and tried to appeal to our better angels while at the same time, making the case for when he thinks the other side is on the wrong track.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said issues of democracy, as well as Trump himself, are increasingly becoming topics of concern for voters.

“More and more people are feeling that, you know, this former president broke the law over and over and over again, and people around him are still doing his bidding to undermine our democracy,” she said. Stabenow commended Biden’s recent approach, noting that “threats are only going up, not down.”

Still, the sharper-edged posture from Biden has been more complicated for Democrats competing in some of the most contested Senate races this cycle, as they seek to attract support from voters who may have backed Trump in 2020.

While she stressed that she has “concerns about attacks on our democracy,” Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said in an interview with WMUR News 9 in New Hampshire that “I think President Biden’s comments just painted with way too broad a brush.” Hassan is considered one of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents, although she won’t know her Republican challenger until the state’s Sept. 13 primaries.

Asked about those same Biden remarks, Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., told The Associated Press that he hadn’t seen them.

“I think a president has a right to give his opinion,” added Kelly, who is facing Republican Blake Masters in one of the most closely watched Senate contests this fall. “You know, I don’t share all of his opinions. But he has a right to give his opinion.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he didn’t like the phrase “semi-fascism,” calling it “awkward.”

“But are they leaning toward fascism? Certainly,” Durbin said. “When you deny the results of an election, when you’re talking about mobs in the street taking over, I mean, that to me is not consistent with democratic values.”

Republicans have accused Biden of divisive rhetoric in his string of speeches, particularly with his Philadelphia address. They say the president has tagged tens of millions of Americans who supported Trump as threats to democracy, although both the president and his aides have been careful to distinguish elected officials from voters themselves.

GOP officials still believe Biden remains a liability in competitive districts and states, although his approval ratings have brightened somewhat in recent weeks as the White House notched a series of achievements and as Trump’s legal troubles — starting with the FBI search of his southern Florida estate — have dominated headlines.

“I hope Biden keeps going around the country,” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said in a Fox News interview Tuesday night. “I hope he goes to every swing state and gives his raving lunatic speech everywhere around the country.”

Yet in those swing states, more Democrats who had initially shied away from joining Biden are increasingly comfortable in doing so. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who is in one of the most closely contested gubernatorial races nationwide, joined Biden in Milwaukee on Monday, although Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes stayed away.

After avoiding other presidential visits to the state, Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman, a Democrat, appeared with Biden in Pittsburgh.

Peters, the DSCC chairman, said it was up to each Democratic candidate to decide whether to appear alongside Biden, but said he believed the president was an asset. Peters noted that he was the sole Democratic candidate in 2014 to actively campaign with President Barack Obama during a midterm year heavily favorable to Republicans.

“Everyone ran away. I had him come in, and I won,” Peters said. “So that’s my data point.”