Timing matters as President Biden visits Los Angeles, Orange County

Timing isn’t always everything in politics, but it’s a pretty big deal this week as President Joe Biden visits Southern California.

Specifically, Biden’s visit – starting with his arrival at Los Angeles International Airport late Wednesday afternoon and scheduled to end when Air Force One pulls out of Orange County early Friday evening on its way to Portland, Oregon – prompts some timing-related political questions:

Is he coming now because, three weeks before the midterms, Democratic Party officials believe a dose of Biden mojo can help their candidates in at least four tight congressional races in Southern California?

Is it because, only days before Biden’s arrival (and long after the Southern California trip had been scheduled), an audio tape surfaced of three Los Angeles City Council members making racist and politically charged comments about fellow Democrats?

Is he coming because Southern California is an ATM for politicians of every stripe, at any time?

The answers, according to political experts, are “yes,” “probably not” and “duh.”

Bottom line: Political insiders and others say Biden’s trip can achieve its intended goals, but because of news events beyond his control this particular moment is unusually fraught.

Dan Schnur, a former campaign consultant who teaches about political messaging at USC and UC Berkeley, put it succinctly:

“The timing isn’t great for him to be in Los Angeles.”

Four races, three weeks

Biden is scheduled to give two public speeches over the next two days. One, at a Metro station in Brentwood on Thursday, is supposed to be about infrastructure spending. The other, at Irvine Valley College on Friday, will touch on inflation.

Neither is expected to dwell on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to strike down Roe. v. Wade or the push by some GOP leaders for a national ban on abortion. Those topics are viewed as issues that might boost Democratic turnout in the Nov. 8 midterm, but some observers believe they aren’t easy talking points for Biden.

“It’s an interesting messaging decision,” said Schnur. “Most Democratic candidates have decided that abortion is the issue that works most strongly in their favor. The fact that Biden is coming to a region with several competitive congressional races to talk about economic issues is a little bit unexpected.”

Political control of the House of Representatives rests on about a dozen close races around the country. Those include as many as four in Southern California: CA-27 in north Los Angeles County; CA-41 in Riverside County; CA-45 in Orange County; and CA-40, which includes parts of Orange and San Bernardino counties. It is unknown how important abortion is to voters of all parties in those districts. It’s certain that voters in all four districts are dealing with high inflation and paying some of the highest gas prices in the nation.

But locals note that Biden recently has stepped up his criticism of voters and politicians who still support former President Donald Trump’s promotion of false claims about the 2020 election, and those who back the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In at least two of the locally close House races, the Republican incumbents, Reps. Mike Garcia (CA-27) and Ken Calvert (CA-41), voted to overturn election results after the Jan. 6 insurrection, prompting Democratic opponents to question their commitment to democratic principles.

For all of those reasons, supporters argue, Biden’s timing for a Southern California visit could be apt.

“I think he’s really going to energize our base,” said Ada Briceno, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Orange County.

“The work he’s done with the Inflation Reduction Act, and student loan debts, are really moving to benefit individuals here in Orange County. And the infrastructure money that will be spent on environmental protections is important. And it will energize voters.”

Briceno, nodding to several speeches Biden has given about abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June 22 decision to overturn Roe and make abortion a state-by-state question, suggested Biden’s time will be better spent on other issues.

“It’s a critical issue, but I think the nation has heard him speak about reproductive rights,” Briceno said.

“He has other things to talk about.”

Elephant(s) in room

Most weeks, Biden’s arrival in Southern California would be the region’s biggest political news.

But it isn’t most other weeks. News broke that two members of the Los Angeles City Council, Democrats Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo did not speak out against another Democrat member, then-Council president Nury Martinez, during a taped conversation last year when Martinez made racist comments about Black Americans and indigenous people in Mexico. All three discussed drawing Los Angeles County voting districts in a way that would take power from Black voters while boosting Latinos.

Martinez resigned from the city council on Wednesday.

As the story has gained national attention, Republican Party officials – who as recently this weekend defended comments by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, who said Democrats want reparation for “people who do the crime”  – suggested Biden’s arrival in Los Angeles is aimed at stemming political fallout.

“President Biden visiting California means he knows what Republicans have known for months: Democrats are in trouble,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Hallie Balch.

But political experts suggest that, if the trip was just about politics, Biden might want to steer clear of Southern California right now.

Though Biden took the unusual step on Tuesday of wading into city issues by publicly saying all three council members should resign, the timing and racially charged nature of the Los Angeles City Council story could reduce any feel-good aspect of coverage about Biden’s visit to Democrat-friendly Southern California.

“Biden’s visit is still going to be a significant boost for Democratic candidates, but Nury Martinez has stolen half of his news cycle,” Schnur said.

Briceno takes a different view. She said the timing of Biden’s visit provides him an opportunity to draw a line against racism, regardless of politics.

“I’m proud that Biden, along with our Democratic community, called for the resignations of the people who used horrific language and insulted all of us,” she said.

Briceno, who spoke as news of Martinez’s resignation broke, said the story could be shifting even during Biden’s stay in Southern California.

“We’re hopeful that the other resignations will come along shortly,” Briceno said. “I feel like things are moving forward.”

Get in line

After his speech at the Metro station, Biden will spend much of Thursday evening with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Brentwood.

Tickets for the event for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reportedly run from $5,000 per person, up to $10,000 per couple and $50,000 for a “host” couple.

It’s not unusual. Big-money fundraisers in Southern California are routine stops for elected officials, candidates and presidents of all parties. President Barack Obama attended Southern California fundraisers while in office and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did the same when she was a presidential candidate. And, in 2020, so did Trump.

“For as much as people around the country might not like California, there’s a lot of political opportunity out here,” said Adam Probolsky, a long-time campaign consultant who now runs Probolsky Research, a political consulting and polling company in Irvine.

“Historically, presidents and candidates come out here for some money,” he added. “That’s just how it works.”

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