'Most valuable surrogate': Spouses are key in battleground states, lending firepower in final push

'Most valuable surrogate': Spouses are key in battleground states, lending firepower in final push

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Doug Emhoff sat in a lawn chair in a small park in Arlington, Va., more than 6 feet away from several members of an organization called La Cocina, who described how the coronavirus pandemic has changed their lives. 

Marbel Pinto worked at the U.S. Capitol in one of their hot kitchens for three years and lost her job due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Well, what can I do?” said Pinto, who immigrated from Bolivia, about losing her job. Speaking in Spanish, she said she has to “carry on with a purpose, with my dream.” Since then, she’s opened a small business from her home making empanadas.

La Cocina provides job training, culinary certification, and job placement services for people in the community, in particular Latinos, who have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Pinto, Dawud Abdul-Wakil, and another woman, Lillian, described losing their jobs and having to find ways to innovate and provide for their families. 

Emhoff, wearing a black mask, listened intently, keeping eye contact with each speaker as they told their story. He told attendees afterward he was going to go home that night and share their stories with his wife, Sen. Kamala Harris.

“I just go over the stories … and I can’t wait to share this with her,” he said during the Oct. 1 campaign stop in Arlington, Virginia, part of his first campaign swing apart from Harri. “Because when I’m out with her, it’s always the same. It’s like, ‘don’t tell me what’s going on, tell me who you are.’ ” 

With Democratic nominee Joe Biden and running mate Harris canvassing the country, their spouses have maintained a similarly vigorous schedule ahead of next week’s Election Day. From Arizona to Maine, Emhoff and Dr. Jill Biden have fanned out, at times both physically and virtually, in an effort to boost their respective spouses’ messages in key states.

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A tight race and a variety of states up for grabs

Joe Biden and President Donald Trump are locked in a tight race for the presidency, with record breaking turnout anticipated nationwide. Biden in recent weeks has consistently led Trump in national polls. But there are several key states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where the two candidates are in a dead heat and a push from a top surrogate of the campaign can help drum up enthusiasm. 

And beyond the traditional battlegrounds, polls have showed tightening races in states Trump won in 2016, like Iowa, and some where Democrats might have never imagined being competitive, like Texas and Georgia. 

Jill Biden, left, wife of Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden, and Doug Emhoff, center, husband of Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., greet a supporter in a passing car during a campaign stop, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The candidates themselves can’t be in 10 states at once. And that’s where the spouses can lend their firepower.

Joe Biden hasn’t campaigned in Maine, but his wife has, visiting the state’s 2nd Congressional district, which holds a key electoral vote that is up for grabs. And Emhoff was the first of the group of four to stop in Texas during the general election, visiting Dallas, where he spoke with faith leaders, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley to talk about food insecurity amid the pandemic. Harris is scheduled to make several stops in Texas later this week, her first trip to the Lone Star State as pundits show the race tightening in the Republican stronghold. 

“It’s just a really a way to maximize the message from maybe not the candidate directly, but someone who knows them on a level that most people don’t,” said Lori Cox Han, professor of political science at Chapman University who has studied the role of women and spouses in politics. “It can really humanize them, and give you a view that’s outside of that media narrative, that’s not just them as a politician we get to see a little bit more of them as a human being.”

Spouses, she said, are “the most valuable surrogate you can have out there.”

Former First Lady Michelle Obama raised the bar, Han noted. She was very popular on the campaign trail and often brought out thousands of supporters on her own. 

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“Michelle Obama was always just a rock star out on the campaign trail,” Han said. “Her husband certainly did fine in his own right, but she just drew such big crowds. Michelle Obama really set the bar high in terms of being able to go out and fill a crowd of people.”

Jill Biden’s status as the former second lady will also help her on the campaign trail, Han said. She noted that due to many events Jill Biden had with Michelle Obamathat the former second lady is “already a known figure. So she’s going to be a good draw on the campaign trail.”

In a statement to USA TODAY, Jill Biden said on the campaign trail “people want to tell us that this country is hopelessly divided.”

“But everywhere I go, I hear the same things: People want good schools, fair job opportunities, and the chance to work hard and make a good life for their families,” she said. “And right now, we can’t do that because we’re all just trying to survive the chaos of Donald Trump’s America.” 

Jill Biden, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, takes off her mask to speak at Amtrak's Cleveland Lakefront train station, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Cleveland, Biden is on a train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania today. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Emhoff, who is a lawyer, has also flexed his campaign muscles and has often campaigned not only in competitive states, but also among diverse groups. Emhoff, who is Jewish, often takes part in events with Jewish Americans to help campaign for Biden.

During a virtual fundraiser with Emhoff last week, Biden senior strategic adviser Greg Schultz said Emhoff is “sent all the time to probably the hardest spots.” 

“Doug has got enough of that Midwestern street cred that you can send him to the upper Midwest, you can send him to the industrial heartland, you can send him to a farm, even send him to a Black community, Latino community, and he can resonate,” Schultz said. 

Emhoff is also in a particularly unique position. With only three women having been the vice presidential nominee of a major party, he is in rare company as a man in his position.

Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984, and Sarah Palin was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008.

“Everybody’s curious about the spouse, but especially if it’s a woman on the ticket,” Han said, saying voters want to know what a potential “Second Gentleman” may look like. She added that if Biden and Harris win, not only would it be historic for a woman to be vice president, not to mention a woman who is Black and Asian American. But it will be historic to have the first Second Gentleman.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, with Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., raise their arms up as fireworks go off in the background during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del. Looking on are Jill Biden, far left, and Harris' husband Doug Emhoff, far right. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“What role will he play and will it be more traditionally like what the the wives of vice presidents and ultimately first ladies have done?” Han said.

Melania Trump and Karen Pence also hit the trail

Democrats aren’t the only ones focusing on the key competitive states.

Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, speaks during a campaign stop, Thursday afternoon, Oct. 22, 2020, in Tipp City, Ohio. (Marshall Gorby/Dayton Daily News via AP)

The Trump campaign has often looked to second lady Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence as a key surrogate on the campaign trail. She has made frequent campaign stops in states like Iowa and North Carolina, and often takes part in Women for Trump and Evangelicals for Trump events.

“Second Lady Karen Pence plays a valuable role on the campaign trail as someone who can effectively share with Americans why President Trump is the best person to lead our nation,” said Kara Brooks, Pence’s communications director. 

Her latest stop was in Waterloo, Iowa, on Wednesday. Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is locked in a competitive re-election battle against Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. Trump and Biden are also locked in a tight battle for the Hawkeye State, which Trump won in 2016 after it supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

“Especially coming out of the debates, it’s like this grudge match between Trump and Biden right now … where if you have the first lady or in this case, the former second lady out talking about the candidates, it just gives us a slightly different view and reminds us that these guys are actually human beings just like everybody else,” said Han. 

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First Lady Melania Trump has not hit the campaign trail nearly as often as Karen Pence. The first lady made her first campaign appearance since 2019 on Tuesday during a solo campaign stop to Lancaster, Penn. She was scheduled to attend a campaign rally in Erie, Ohio, on Oct. 20 with President Trump, but canceled due to a “lingering cough” after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this month.

First lady Melania Trump speaks during a campaign rally on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Atglen, Pa. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)

Melania Trump stuck to her husband’s messaging during her Pennsylvania stop this week, criticizing Democrats and Biden.

“Meanwhile, I watched Donald continue to work hard to keep people informed and calm, to protect our economy, and make hard and unpopular decisions to do all he could to keep us all safe,” she said when discussing her husband’s impeachment earlier this year. “This sham was led by (the) opposition and their display of hatred is on display to this day.”

Pennsylvania is a key state were both parties are campaigning heavily. Trump won the state in 2016 after President Obama won it twice. Trump and Biden have both made repeated trips there, as well as Jill Biden. The Bidens are both Pennsylvania natives.

Han said spouses likely don’t sway voters on the campaign trail, but she maintained they can help generate excitement for the candidates. She added that this historically diverse election — the Democratic primary had a record number of women candidates and candidates of color — shows people are accepting changes to the previously laid out roles for the spouses of candidates. 

“We’re starting to just move forward and how we think about the role of a spouse in a lot of different ways, outside that very traditional role of a first lady,” Han said, noting that female candidates in the primary often had their husbands on the campaign trail, and so did Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay candidate of a major party. “I think that’s positive to see, showcasing even more diversity in that regard.”

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