WASHINGTON — On the heels of Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman received a phone call. Whitman, a Republican, had endorsed Biden in the race against then-President Donald Trump. Now, the person he called said, Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris wanted his cell phone number.
Nobody ever called.
«They never used it!» Whitman, who had spoken for Biden at that year’s Democratic convention, in an interview.
Whitman was part of a cohort of prominent Republicans who broke with the party in 2020. Fed up with Trump, they gravitated toward Biden’s campaign thinking he would be a unifying figure, bringing moderate Republicans into government and easing simmering partisan tensions. during years. Abandoning the party’s candidate was nothing they took lightly. As Whitman said during his speech at the convention: «What am I doing here? I’m a lifelong Republican.»
Since then, Biden’s Republican supporters have largely dispersed. Some say they never heard of Biden’s political operation again. (Whitman said he didn’t expect an overture from Biden.) Others are disillusioned with Biden and are considering whether to endorse him or stick with someone else, possibly a third-party candidate or a non-Trump Republican.
His story amounts to a warning sign for the president, emblematic of the moderate Republican and independent voters who could end up deciding the 2024 election. Biden’s victory in the Electoral College last time out fell to fewer than 43,000 votes in just three states: Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin. Defections by even a small portion of Biden voters in these and other battleground states could send the White House back to the GOP.
A NBC News poll of registered voters this month showed that 44 percent would consider a third-party or independent candidate if the choice they face next year is Biden and Trump. Overall, just 35 percent of independent voters approved of Biden’s performance, compared with 53 percent who disapproved.
In a head-to-head matchup with Trump, Biden enjoys a 14-point lead among independents. However, if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the Republican nominee, that lead dwindles to just two points, according to the poll.
With the race underway, Biden has moved closer to the center when it comes to Alaskan oil drilling, crime and immigration. Liberals were disappointed, but it’s far from clear that the steps he’s taken are enough to broaden his support. The NBC poll showed that voters who described themselves as «not very strong» Republicans, a group Biden would love to attract, favored Trump by a whopping 71-point margin.
Biden did not name high-profile Republicans to Cabinet or senior staff positions in what would have been an inclusive gesture, some of his backers said. Instead, when he took office in 2009, Democrat Barack Obama appointed Republican Congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois as his transportation secretary. He retained Robert Gates as defense secretary, who told the press that considered himself a republican. Obama also nominated a third Republican, Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, for the Commerce Secretary post, though Gregg later withdrew.
Former Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, endorsed Biden in 2020 but says he now leans toward former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, also a Republican. He plans to send a donation to Christie and can actively campaign for him.
Shays said he doesn’t think Biden will win the GOP back this time «given that once he was elected, nobody was really invited, nobody was included.»
“Once the election was over, the Biden administration clearly had no interest in cultivating a relationship with former Republican members of Congress,” Shays said. «I see this as a missed opportunity for someone we all respect. To this day, I wonder if Joe is fully aware of this.»
In January 2022, Shays sent a letter to former Sen. Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who helped lead Biden’s search for a running mate. Shays wrote about two other Republicans who spoke for Biden at the Democratic convention in Milwaukee that year: former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
«And this fact… I find so hard to believe: Both John Kasich and Susan Molinari told me that after they spoke at the Democratic convention in support of Joe, no one gave them any comment on how they did it, or they just took the time to thank them, not the president or any of the staff, to this day,» Shays wrote.
«Chris, in closing, given all the demands and challenges facing President Biden’s administration, I can’t believe you’re really aware that there has been such a break in your administration’s basic political acumen,» he added.
Shays said she did not receive a response to the letter. Molinari could not be reached for comment. Through a spokesperson, Kasich declined to comment.
In some cases, Republicans who switched allegiances ended up with significant allocations. Former Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, has been named US ambassador to Turkey. Cindy McCain, widow of former senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, was chosen by Biden to be ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome.
Others don’t envy the Biden administration’s lack of reach and say they would vote for him again if there is a head-to-head showdown with Trump. They just aren’t sure Biden would win.
Miles Taylor was sitting at a neighborhood bar drinking a martini when Biden tried to reach him. It was the summer of 2020, and Taylor, a former chief of staff for the Department of Homeland Security under Trump, had just endorsed Biden. Taylor missed the thank you call. He lamented that they never connected but, like Shays, he believes the Biden White House «missed the moment to appeal to moderate Republicans and show its commitment to unity.»
Now he fears it is too late. In a rematch between Biden and Trump, Taylor says he would vote for Biden, but believes Trump would ek out a victory.
“It will be difficult for Biden in this runoff to win back the same moderate Republicans who defected from the GOP last time,” said Taylor, who appeared at a video ad denouncing Trump three months before the election.
“Those disgruntled 2020 Republicans have fully returned to the tribe,” he added. “They are fed up with a Democratic administration. That’s a flashing red light for the president this time.»
Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who also endorsed Biden last campaign, is intrigued by No Labels, a centrist group exploring the possibility of running an independent candidate. He said he won’t vote for Trump, but worries that Biden will run another campaign at age 80. During the 2020 campaign, Dent believed that Biden would serve only one term and then step aside. That’s not what happened.
“I thought Biden sold himself as a transitional figure to the next generation of leaders,” Dent said. “He would be the guy who helped stabilize the White House and normalize things and pass the torch. That was my impression, that this was his last swan song ”.
Last time, Biden made a point of showing Republicans that they had given up on Trump. Dozens of Republican lawmakers, national security experts and businessmen stepped forward to endorse Biden, while Democrats set aside time at the party’s nominating convention to Republican speeches that he had put «country over party».
There are no guarantees that Biden will be able to choreograph the same bipartisan show of force in the next election. Tom Coleman is a former Republican congressman from Missouri who last endorsed Biden.
«They were going to keep in touch and I never heard from them again,» Coleman said. «I’m not upset about it, other than it would have been nice to thank them after they won, but boy, I don’t care.
Looking ahead to 2024, he added that he hasn’t seen any effort to reach out to like-minded Republicans.
«That’s not so much the president’s fault as it is the people around him and the campaign now,» Coleman said. “But it’s foolish not to reach people, and I’m not talking about individuals so much as groups, to get them to participate in your campaign. Why wouldn’t you? I don’t know.»