Former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden is an early favorite in the wide Democratic field for 2020. He’s the only person who isn’t a new contender that Democrats seem excited over, and one of the only ones who might get a primary endorsement from former President Barack Obama.
He also sees himself as Democrats’ only hope in 2020, allegedly telling a Democratic official “If you can persuade me there is somebody better who can win, I’m happy not to do it.”
But in 2018, Biden wasn’t the hope for the left he seems to see himself as, at least not in Michigan.
In Michigan’s Sixth Congressional District, money poured into the tight race between incumbent Republican Congressman Fred Upton and former YMCA National Health Officer Matt Longjohn.
Longjohn accused Upton of a misinformation campaign. A concerted effort that spawned a flurry of headlines disputed Longjohn’s use of “M.D.” in campaign literature on the basis that he was not a licensed physician. In fact, Longjohn does have a degree in medicine from Tulane.
The Medical Society of Michigan and Michigan’s Republican Secretary of State at the time supported Longjohn. The American Medical Association (AMA) didn’t, and financially backed Upton. Longjohn considers the AMA’s lack of support a betrayal of his years of dedicated service to the association.
“What [Upton] was doing at the time was creating a narrative of confusion and throwing millions of dollars at it,” Longjohn told Grit Post. And, he added, Joe Biden became a part of that confusion.
The New York Times on Wednesday attributed part of Longjohn’s defeat to Biden’s de facto endorsement of Fred Upton, who won by less than five points. Biden also declined to endorse Longjohn. While he thinks that Biden’s words and actions weren’t pivotal, they were part of the campaign of confusion Upton ran.
Speaking at a paid engagement before the right-leaning Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Biden — who made $200,000 from the event — lauded Upton as “one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with.” Upton was in the audience — his family foundation contributes to the Economic Club.
Biden’s friendliness with Upton appears to stem in part from Upton’s support of the 21st Century Cures Act, a cause that included the Cancer Moonshot that Biden championed. Longjohn, too, was involved with the act’s passage as a public health professional at the YMCA.
“Either Mr. Biden had no one doing research for him who could help connect my role to those efforts or he was just looking for a fig leaf to cover his support for an establishment politician like Fred Upton who might help him create a narrative in 2020,” Longjohn said. “Make no mistake about it, he was purely doing delegate math and playing his own brand of politics.”
But it could be a liability in his presidential ambitions. Local Democrats begged Biden to repair the damage done to Longjohn’s campaign, but Biden remained unmoved. For many of the rank-and-file locals, that move was seen as out-of-touch elitism undermining their hard work.
While Longjohn was a supporter of Biden’s agenda as vice president and worked with him on healthcare legislation, Biden probably shouldn’t count on his vote should he declare his intentions to run in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
“[Biden’s] actions in October of 2018 make me wonder whether he would really be in it for the right reasons,” said Longjohn. “I think it was kind of dumb for him to be making the decisions he did when others who are also interested in that delegate math game were nothing but supportive of a Democratic candidate.”
Upton, it should be noted, introduced legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) — the signature legislation passed while Biden was in the White House. He also has a record President Trump would favor, including voting against reopening the Department of Homeland Security, whose 1,000 Coast Guard employees in Michigan are working without pay.
Longjohn said his was far from the only story of Biden acting in Republicans’ favor in 2018. Which seems likely, given that he said Republicans were right in trying to gut Social Security.
And, for his part, Longjohn is considering running for Congress again in 2020, in part because Upton has actually been more moderate since the election, hoping that the competition made Upton listen to constituents and evolve his positions.
Though, Longjohn admits, its more likely that Upton just is a poor leader.
“I think its easier for him to be in the minority where he doesn’t have to show any real leadership,” said Longjohn. “Maybe he’s done? Maybe this last campaign and him going negative convinced him that that was his last election.”
Fred Upton did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesperson for Biden told the New York Times that he “received hundreds of requests for endorsements from all over the country and endorsed in 135 races this cycle where his impact could be greatest.”
Biden has not yet formally declared an intention to run for President in 2020.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.