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Endangered House candidates grapple with how closely to run with Biden and Trump

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WASHINGTON (AP) — As Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola readies for a tough reelection contest in Alaska, she’s talking fish. For Rep. Mike Levin, who is trying to keep his California district blue, the big topic is sand. And as Republican Rep. Mike Garcia campaigns in another competitive California district, he’s criticizing a state-levied gas tax.

As these incumbents and others vie for reelection in the few dozen districts that are likely to determine control of the House this fall, they are leaning into local issues. It’s a time-honored political strategy, but it’s also an attempt to change the subject as candidates wrestle with how to talk about the two men at the top of the ticket this year — President Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Both presumptive presidential nominees remain popular with their party’s core voters, yet have struggled to secure the broad approval that helps their party win down ballot, leaving many of their candidates to essentially fend for themselves.

“I am so angry and frustrated with Joe Biden right now,” said Peltola, citing disagreements with Biden’s policies on liquefied natural gas and the border.

In 2022, she flipped Alaska’s lone House seat to Democrats for the first time in nearly 50 years. But to keep it blue this year, she will have to overcome headwinds at the top of the ticket. Trump carried Alaska by 10 percentage points over Biden in 2020, and is nearly certain to carry the state again.

For Peltola, the answer to Trump’s popularity in Alaska is a cause that was central to her 2022 campaign: reducing the number of fish that are caught by accident through bottom trawling.

“Salmon and halibut and crab and herring really, really unite Alaskans,” she said. “That is our identity.”

Peltola is not alone in her approach. With attention in Congress shifting to campaigns in recent weeks, at times dozens of Democrats have broken with Biden on policy matters, especially thorny issues like illegal immigration and conditions on aid to Israel.

The dynamic was on full display earlier this month when Biden announced an order to clamp asylum claims at the border. While Biden’s ceremonial signing of the proclamation in the East Room of the White House came during a busy day on Capitol Hill, only eight congressional lawmakers — Democrats mostly from border states like Texas, Arizona and California — showed up.

With Biden and Trump locked in a tight election battle and Democrats defending a difficult map to keep control of the Senate, many Democrats view the House majority as a crucial firestop in the event of a Trump presidency.

To win, Democrats are focusing on peeling away independent and Republican voters, a tacit acknowledgment that winning control of Congress will likely require many of the party’s candidates to outperform Biden.

“We want them to stand up and talk about what positions they think, what policies we should move, and they may have some disagreements with the administration in some cases, some cases not,” Rep. Suzan DelBene, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said last month. “Whatever that may be, they are speaking up for their communities.”

As the country grapples with a moment of dissatisfaction with the choices for president, political strategists also see growing potential for split-ticket voting, especially among independent-minded voters.

“Voters may decide they are going to vote for Trump but they know how unstable he can be, so they will vote for a Democrat to check him,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and now directs the Cornell University Institute of Politics and Global Affairs.

Meanwhile, House Republican leaders have tied themselves closely to Trump. They enthusiastically welcomed him to Capitol Hill this month and both House Speaker Mike Johnson and Rep. Richard Hudson, the chair of the Republican National Campaign Committee, traveled to Florida for meetings at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.

“We’re committed to working very closely with him,” Hudson said at a news conference.

During Trump’s visit with House members, he offered to hold telephone rallies for the lawmakers.

Several Republicans — surely aware of Trump’s propensity for calling out those who voice dissent — said they would potentially welcome Trump’s help, even in districts that Biden won in 2020.

Garcia, the California Republican whose district Biden won by more than 12 percentage points, called Trump’s town hall proposal “a gracious offer.”

“We appreciate all the help we can get,” he said.

As a former U.S. Navy officer, Garcia looks to appeal to a large number of service members, veterans and what he calls “JFK Democrats” who are socially liberal but conservative on economic and national security issues.

Some other Republicans, such as Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., were ambivalent about taking the former president up on the telephone rally offer. But he still said that contrasting Trump’s record in the White House with Biden’s accomplishments would give him an advantage in a district that Biden won in 2020.

“The focus for me is on the direction of the country,” Lawler said. “I think what you’re seeing across the country is that people are less focused on personality and more focused on the substance of the issues.”

Recent elections give Republican candidates some reason for caution. Trump has been mostly a drag on his party when it comes to Congress. When Trump ran for reelection in 2020, Democrats took the Senate and held on to their House majority. In 2022, as Trump’s presence loomed large, Republicans fell well short of expectations while winning the House. Meanwhile, their campaign for the Senate majority crashed and burned, doomed in key states by candidates that Trump had helped to elevate.

Republicans are hoping that Biden’s record, rather than what they see as Trump’s, will be decisive for voters.

“Four years have gone by, it could be more of a referendum on Biden,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of Republican Main Street Partnership, which bolsters the GOP House members running in battleground districts.

But some swing state Democrats see Biden’s rematch against Trump as a potential political asset. In 2022, Biden made a late-hour visit to help Levin in California and he went on to win by five points. Levin thinks he still has an advantage at the top of the ticket.

“I think my constituents have strong feelings about President Biden, but they also had strong feelings about former President Trump,” Levin said. “I will always take a decent, accomplished President Biden who truly cares about people over a narcissistic, chaotic Trump who only cares about himself.”

Levin is also emphasizing one of Biden and Democrats’ key legislative accomplishments by developing an interactive map that shows the district projects that have been funded by the infrastructure law of 2021. He talks often about a local project that replenishes the sand on a beach to protect a coastal rail line.

“I hear more about that sand than you would know,” he said.

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This story has corrected the first name of Rep. Mike Levin.

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Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Lisa Mascaro contributed.

By STEPHEN GROVES
Associated Press

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