Biden lost Ohio. So why does he keep coming back?

Scott Wartman
Cincinnati Enquirer
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • President Joe Biden visits Oho for the third time as president with his CNN Town Hall in Cincinnati.
  • The city plays into Biden's infrastructure push, with its beleaguered Brent Spence Bridge.
  • He needs Republican support for infrastructure, and southern Ohio is full of them.

CINCINNATI - Even though President Joe Biden lost Ohio by 8 percentage points in 2020, he doesn't seem to hold a grudge. 

Biden's CNN town hall in Cincinnati on Wednesday will mark his third trip to Ohio as president. Vice President Kamala Harris also visited Cincinnati in April. 

The state has been one of his favorite destinations as president.

Since he took office, Biden has been to Pennsylvania four times, Michigan three times, and Wisconsin twice. But those are states he won in 2020. Ohio, on the other hand, easily backed Donald Trump for the second election in a row. 

As of Monday, the White House had released few details of the town hall on Cincinnati, including why Cincinnati?

While it may be tempting to view his visits as a portent for the races in 2022 or 2024, political experts see Biden's focus on the Midwest as more about this year.

Ohio still has symbolic value, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

"It is probably the case that Ohio's days as a presidential bellwether state are over, at least in the short term," Kondik said in an email to The Cincinnati Enquirer. "But the state's reputation as being representative of middle America may endure."

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Cincinnati's bridge and Biden's infrastructure plan

If you want to get support for a plan to build more roads and bridges, Cincinnati is a good place to start. 

It just so happens Biden's town hall coincides with his push to get a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan passed through Congress. 

His proposal would pay for the 10 most economically significant bridges in the country. Oh, and the Cincinnati region just happens to have one of the nation's most famous functionally obsolete bridges, the Brent Spence Bridge connecting Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. 

The $2.5 billion project to renovate and replace the bridge has languished for decades.  

The 59-year-old span has attracted other presidents pushing infrastructure investment. President Barack Obama in 2011 spoke in front of the bridge about the need to fund infrastructure. 

"I think Cincinnati is a great backdrop when you want to talk about infrastructure," said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. "If I was looking for an explanation of why come here now, one of the central pillars of his administration is transforming American infrastructure. You can come here and point to a very important bridge in desperate need of replacing."

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Paging Portman and McConnell

The fact that Ohio is predominantly Republican might actually be a draw for Biden, particularly when he's trying to pitch plansfor which he needs Republican support, said Paul Nolette, associate professor of political science at Marquette University. 

His infrastructure plan needs the support of Republican Sens. Rob Portman and Mitch McConnell. Portman lives in a Cincinnati suburb. McConnell represents Kentucky, across the Ohio River.  

"Ohio’s status as a red-leaning state is likely a feature, not a bug, in pitching his infrastructure plans," Nolette said in an email to The Enquirer. "Ohio has plenty of infrastructure needs, and holding these events in Republican-leaning states like Ohio is intended as a signal that these policies benefit Americans across the political spectrum."

Portman, in a statement, didn't seem pressured by Biden's visit. He reiterated he's willing to work with the president on infrastructure. Portman was one of 21 senators in June to work out a compromise with Biden on his infrastructure plan. 

“I welcome President Biden to southwest Ohio," Portman said in the statement. "I worked with the White House to reach an agreement on a bipartisan infrastructure framework and continue to work with President Biden and my Senate colleagues to pass this important legislation that will help with the Brent Spence Bridge and other important projects in the Cincinnati area."

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This is Biden's style

Biden hasn't traveled to California or New York as president. His first official trip as president instead was to Milwaukee in February. 

That's more his style, said David Pepper. The former Cincinnati City Councilman and Ohio Democratic chairman has spent time with Biden over the years as he's traveled the state. Biden came to Ohio often as vice president. And when he left office, he was here for rallies and fundraisers for Sen. Sherrod Brown, gubernatorial candidate Rich Cordray and others.

Biden has made an effort to reach out to middle America, Pepper said. 

"It's to forcefully make the case that the stuff we're talking about in Washington, which can sometimes feel like a conversation on the coasts, will make a difference in a state like Ohio," Pepper said. 

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OK, maybe a little about 2022, 2024

You can't take the politics out of politics. As such, pundits couldn't rule out political considerations for Biden's visit. 

Biden's recent visits to the Midwest – La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Crystal Lake, Illinois – were in competitive House districts next year, Kondik said. 

His visit in Hamilton County is another competitive House district held by Republican Rep. Steve Chabot. Redistricting could make Chabot vulnerable if the lines are drawn to put his district entirely in what is now a firmly Democratic Hamilton County. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has named Chabot as one of its key targets next year. 

Democrats also hope to wrest the governorship, Portman's seat – he's retiring – and the state's Supreme Court in 2022. Republicans control every statewide executive office, the legislature and the state's top court. 

There are also Democrats who still hold out hope for 2024 in Ohio. Obama in 2012 made the case that his auto industry bailout helped the economy in Ohio, Pepper said.

"If I'm Biden, I have the same mindset," Pepper said. "I want to show Cincinnati, Steubenville, Marietta that I've got things done in the state that you've not seen in a long time."