Oct. 12, 2018
OWINGSVILLE, Ky. — Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., in some of his harshest criticism of President Trump to date, said on Friday that the president was “trashing American values” and undermining institutions to “amass power,” as he appealed to his party to not give up on winning the votes of the white working class.
Campaigning in rural Kentucky for a Democrat running in one of the nation’s most watched House races, Mr. Biden appeared to be testing themes for a potential 2020 campaign to unseat Mr. Trump.
“He is just trashing American values the way he talks about people, the way he makes fun of people, the way he denigrates folks,” Mr. Biden said. “I got to tell you, I think there is a method to his madness because he wants you to get down in the mosh pit with him.”
On Friday, the former vice president came to this town of 1,500 to campaign for Amy McGrath, a retired Marine combat aviator, in a district where Democrats’ fortunes have profoundly eroded. On Saturday, the president is scheduled to campaign in another Republican stronghold in the district for her opponent, Representative Andy Barr.
Mr. Biden is one of the few national Democrats thought to be able to connect with the white rural voters, ancestral members of the party who have abandoned it to help form the bulwark of the president’s electoral coalition.
In an interview after the rally, Mr. Biden did not hold back on his criticism of the president, saying that his attack on everything from federal courts to Republicans in Congress is about “amassing power.” Mr. Trump’s approach has been particularly effective among the white working class in rural America, Mr. Biden acknowledged, but Democrats need to re-engage and try to win back that vote.
“We can’t possibly in my view win the presidency unless we can begin to reclaim those white working-class voters that used to vote for us,” he said.
Mr. Biden recognized the power of Mr. Trump’s appeal to grievance, but he said it had its limits.
“His value set is much too narrow and self-serving, and I think it’s deliberately designed to appeal to the legitimate frustrations of a lot of working-class people by finding a scapegoat, the ‘other,’” Mr. Biden said. “Your lost your job, your identity is being threatened because of that immigrant.” He added, “It’s an old, old method.”
But, he added, “I look out there and I just don’t know how much more grievance can be appealed to by this guy to keep a majority.”
In this midterm cycle, Mr. Biden has maintained an aggressive schedule, campaigning for more than two dozen Democratic candidates. His travels — from California to rural Kentucky, on college campuses and among party base voters — are meant to convey that the potential 2020 presidential candidate has maintained broad, cross-sectional appeal, even as fissures appear between the party’s moderate and left wings.
“I don’t buy this thing that there is this great divide with white working-class people on progressive issues vs. economic issues,” Mr. Biden said. “I haven’t found that.”
The crowd in a packed Bath County High School gymnasium at one point broke into a chant of “run, Joe, run.”
When asked how Mr. Biden’s appearance compared with other famous visitors, people here recalled when the stars of the History Channel show “American Pickers” came to town and the visit by Roni Stoneman, the star of the television show “Hee Haw.” The closest to someone of Mr. Biden’s stature was when President Harry S. Truman came to nearby Montgomery County in 1948.
“You are talking about a district that has not been in play, that is a plus-nine-point Republican district,” said Ben Chandler, who represented the district in Congress before losing to Mr. Barr.
But the open question is whether Mr. Biden can effectively counter the president.
“The president fires up the base unlike anybody else on the Republican side,” said Billy Piper, a Republican consultant and former top aide to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, adding, “To the extent that he can help energize that part of the electorate, that helps Andy a lot.”
The sweeping majority of Bath County residents register as Democrats and vote that way in local races, but vote Republican in national races. The county is almost 98 percent white, with only 12 percent of its population holding at least a bachelor’s degree and 25 percent living in poverty.
The industries that once sustained it, first iron ore, then mineral springs, and much more recently tobacco, have all but vanished. People here see the national Democratic Party looking down on them and having almost no cultural frame of reference for understanding their views.
“To me Bath County has always been this really warm, welcoming small town with a big heart,” said Sannie Overly, a Democratic state legislator who has consistently won Bath County. “If someone over there develops cancer, and they don’t have health insurance, they get together and have a fish fry or an auction. It’s just a culture of looking out for each other.”
But voters’ identification as Democrats is more legacy allegiance than political fealty. And affection for Mr. Barr runs strong. Tom Byron, who has lived in Owingsville for 75 years, and his wife, Judy, are both Barr supporters who were unmoved by Mr. Biden’s visit. Ms. Byron said she could not vote for Ms. McGrath because of her support for abortion rights.
While Mr. Biden came to campaign for Ms. McGrath, Mr. Byron thought he had a larger agenda. “Do you think Joe is doing for himself too?” Mr. Byron asked.
Ms. McGrath has her own brand of appeal to voters in Bath County. People like her military background and the fact that she has put distance between herself and the national Democratic Party. “Those that meet her are impressed with her,” Mr. Byron said.
If Mr. Biden, as Mr. Byron suggests, was also coming to Kentucky to burnish his own fortunes, there may be good reason.
“I just think he is a good, decent man,” said Jeanie Jones, a teller at Owingsville Banking Company. “I think he has morals.” At the next teller window, Tammy York agreed. “He just seems really humble,” she said. “It’s amazing that they would come to a little place like this because there’s nothing here.”