WASHINGTON — First lady Jill Biden is set to campaign Friday for Democrats in governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey, her most overt foray into politics since arriving at the White House nine months ago.
Her involvement is the latest sign that Democrats are pulling out the stops in the upcoming elections, particularly in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe appears to be in a tighter race than expected. Jill Biden will be followed by other high-profile party voices in the coming days, including former President Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams, the former 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has risen to national prominence.
The return to the campaign trail will be Jill Biden's first since stumping for her husband in last year's presidential campaign. However, she has regularly traveled the country 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.
That includes visiting reliably red states like Kansas, where she met with Hispanic community leaders on Tuesday. The state hasn’t backed a Democrat for president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
She's due at a Friday afternoon early voting rally at Middlesex College in Edison, New Jersey, where Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy is thought to be comfortably ahead. She will later attend an event in suburban Richmond, Virginia’s capital, alongside McAuliffe, a former governor who is running to regain the post.
In New Jersey, Murphy has sought to tie his Republican opponent, ex-state Assembly member Jack Ciattarelli, to former President Donald Trump’s hesitancy about the COVID vaccine and mask-wearing, as well as lies about last year’s presidential election being stolen by widespread fraud.
The first lady's visit will be even more watched nationally in Virginia, though, where McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic Party powerbroker and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, is squaring off with former businessman and political newcomer, Republican Glenn Youngkin.
Tammy R. Vigil, a professor of media science at Boston University, said first ladies have routinely traveled to boost their party's leading candidates since Laura Bush — who like many presidential spouses often had higher approval ratings than her husband — began frequently campaigning for key Republicans during midterms and other races.
“You get a lot more emotional bang for the buck," said Vigil, author of a 2019 book on Melania Trump and Michelle Obama which details how a “new era” of first ladies have expanded their political influence. “You get the positivity of her favorability compared to her husband. You get her being able to talk about issues in different kinds of ways than an elected official might be able to. And you get a lot of that relatability factor.”
Jill Biden holds a doctorate in English and has 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.
McAuliffe says that the president, who carried Virginia by a comfortable 10 percentage points last year, will also be campaigning for him in coming days. In the meantime, President Biden’s approval ratings have fallen to some of the lowest levels of his White House tenure.
“The president of course wants former Gov. McAuliffe to be the future governor of Virginia,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
But she also appeared to be attempting to lower expectations about whether what happens in Virginia next month could be an indicator of national Democratic struggles heading into next year's midterm elections — when the party's narrow control of both chambers of Congress is at stake.
“I will leave it to other outside analysts to convey that off-year elections are often not a bellwether,” Psaki said. "We’re going to do everything we can to help former Gov. McAuliffe.”
McAuliffe is counting on women, especially those in the suburbs where Republican candidates saw their support wane during the Trump administration. Vigil said that is precisely "the constituency you bring the first lady in for.”
“Their whole persona is often built on the idea of connecting with constituents. Especially female constituents," she said, calling the dynamic “annoying to me that that’s the case because these first ladies are political actors and citizens in and of themselves, and yet they get pushed into this narrow corner of, ’Oh, the woman vote.'”
“It does make sense,” Vigil added "it’s just kind of uncomfortable in the modern era to have that be so limited.”
The first lady's travels come as the president is set to spend his 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. As both candidate and president, he has introduced himself at some events as “Jill’s husband,” which draws frequent laughs and applause.