HENRICO, Va. (AP) — First lady Jill Biden campaigned Friday for Democrats in governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey, saying "this election will set a course for a year from now” during her first political trip of her husband's presidency.
Biden spoke at an early voting rally at Middlesex College in Edison, New Jersey, where Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is running against Republican Jack Ciattarelli, an ex-state Assembly member. She also hit an evening event in suburban Richmond, Virginia, alongside Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor who is running to regain the post and facing a tighter race than expected against Republican Glenn Youngkin, a businessman.
“We can’t get complacent. We have to get to work,” the first lady, who was born in New Jersey and clapped on stage to “It’s My Life,” by New Jersey icon and President Biden supporter Jon Bon Jovi, told the crowd in Edison. The loudest applause of the event came when Jill Biden joked, “Heck, today’s Friday. So go grab a beer and go vote.”
Democrats, eager to boost turnout for the off-year elections, dispatched the first lady to rally support in the Nov. 2 governors' races. It marks the first time that Biden has been back on the campaign trial since stumping for her husband in last year’s presidential campaign, and it underscores the political stakes for the White House.
In Virginia especially, which President Joe Biden won by a comfortable 10 percentage points last year, a defeat in the governor's race could spell trouble for Democrats in the 2022 midterms, when control of Congress is at risk of flipping to Republicans. The president’s approval ratings have fallen to some of the lowest levels of his White House tenure amid congressional fights over infrastructure and voting rights.
The first lady capped her trip by addressing a crowd of about 300 at a grassroots mobilizing rally outside a recreation center in Henrico, Virginia. She was twice interrupted by protesters who appeared to be decrying federal fossil fuel subsidies, and she said, laughing, "You’ve gotta love democracy.”
“Virginia, you need somebody that you can trust, and that's Terry McAuliffe,” Biden said. She warned of misinformation becoming more prevalent online with Election Day looming, adding, “There are a lot of people who like to twist the words around. But we know Terry. We know his heart."
McAuliffe called Biden “my very good friend” and said, “I cannot tell you how much is at stake in this election.” He called Youngkin a “want-a-be” of former President Donald Trump.
Acknowledging the stakes, President Biden noted Friday to reporters while traveling in Connecticut: “Now, look, I think everybody understandably reads the two gubernatorial off-year elections as being a bellwether of what may happen. Sometimes it’s been right; sometimes it’s been wrong.”
He continued: “I think Terry is going to win. If he doesn’t win, I don’t know how much you read into that, but, you know, I -- well, I think he’ll win.”
McAuliffe said Biden would be visiting Virginia in the coming days, as are former President Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has risen to national prominence.
In Jill Biden's role as first lady, she has regularly traveled the country — including to reliably red states — to promote such issues as improving public education and community college, reopening schools amid the pandemic and urging people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
She has also continued to teach writing and English at Northern Virginia Community College, where she’s held a position since 2009 — the first first lady to leave the White House to log hours at a full-time job.
The first lady's travels came as the president spent Friday in Connecticut promoting a massive spending plan that Democrats are trying to muscle through Congress despite deep divisions within their own ranks over the final price tag.
Also on Friday, the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said it had filed an ethics complaint against White House press secretary Jen Psaki for a comment she made about McAuliffe from the briefing room.
In response to a reporter’s question Thursday about Virginia’s election, Psaki said, “We’re going to do everything we can to help former Gov. McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing.”
After CREW filed its complaint, Psaki said in a CNN interview that she should have used the word “he” instead of “we” in response to the question. In a statement, Psaki said she would “choose my words more carefully moving forward.”