Ahead of the early nominating contests in the Democratic presidential race, the public saw all kinds of advertising from the candidates and their allies, but this year, Republicans were not content to sit on the sidelines and wait for a rival to emerge.
On the contrary, GOP officials were eager to intervene in the race for the Democratic nomination — driven by fear of one candidate in particular.
In January, for example, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) took the unusual step of launching an attack ad in Iowa targeting former Vice President Joe Biden. Politico had a related report a few weeks later ahead of the South Carolina primary.
Former President Barack Obama is sending a cease-and-desist letter to South Carolina TV stations demanding they not air a Republican ad that misuses his words to attack his former vice president, Joe Biden. The Committee to Defend the President super PAC’s ad, which began airing Tuesday as part of a $250,000 media buy, is the latest in a string of Republican efforts designed to torpedo Biden in an effort to keep him from facing President Donald Trump.
A pro-Trump super PAC launched anti-Biden advertising ahead of the Nevada caucuses, too.
How many other Democratic presidential hopefuls were on the receiving end of GOP attack ads? None. There was an enormous field of potential targets, but Republicans focused entirely on one potential rival.
It was as subtle as a sledgehammer: the president’s allies didn’t want Joe Biden to win the Democratic nomination.
To be sure, there’s been ample discussion, especially on the left, about whether GOP assumptions about the Delaware Democrat are correct. What’s far less debatable, however, is the palpable, months-long fear in Republican circles about who they didn’t want to face in the general election.
The anxiety was especially acute at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The illegal extortion scheme that led to Donald Trump’s impeachment was an extraordinary scandal, but let’s not forget that at its core, the president hoped to pressure a foreign country to dig up dirt on Biden — leaving little doubt that the incumbent president was worried about facing him in a fair fight.
This was certainly the most dramatic evidence, but it was one data point among many. My TRMS colleague Matthew Alexanderreminded me that as far back as July 2018 — nearly two years ago — Axios reported that Biden was the candidate the president “most fears running against.”
Several months later, in March 2019, CNBC reported on a White House meeting in which Trump “seemed to indicate to some of his confidants that he is concerned about the prospect of facing Biden.” A week later, Politico reported that the president had “peppered aides on more than one occasion for updates on how Biden is faring … a sign of just how seriously Trump takes the potential candidacy.”
Politico had a similar report in April 2019, highlighting the president’s “genuine concern” about Biden’s chances.
As early as last fall, Trump was talking privately with aides about the threat Biden posed: “How are we gonna beat Biden?” he would ask. When reassured that the moderate Biden would never defeat several of his more liberal rivals, Trump has pushed back: “But what if he does?”
That was a year ago this month. We now know, of course, that the former vice president did, in fact, outlast his more progressive rivals.
The result is the 2020 general election match-up Trump and his party hoped to avoid.