President Joe Biden is turning to a reliably Republican state – and its GOP governor – to highlight one of his key bipartisan accomplishments he’s trying to sell to voters heading into 2024.
The visit to Utah, where he arrived Wednesday, caps a four-day sales pitch through the West as he seeks to convince skeptical voters of the impacts of his economic and legislative achievements.
But unlike his prior two stops in Arizona and New Mexico, which are home to Democratic governors, the president is joined here in Salt Lake City by the state’s Republican governor – Spencer Cox – as he makes his case for one of those bipartisan wins.
Biden on Thursday will tout a key plank of his so-called “unity agenda”: Caring for US veterans. The president will visit the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City for remarks celebrating the one-year anniversary of the passage of the PACT Act, a bill that provides critical health care benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service.
Cox, who greeted Biden Wednesday evening as he arrived in Salt Lake City, will also be on hand for the event, his office said, marking a rare occasion where a Republican governor is joining the Democratic president to promote policy initiatives.
Utah’s governor, who serves as chair of the National Governors Association, has advocated for bipartisan work, telling reporters at the White House earlier this year that Americans are “hungry for bipartisanship. They want to see both sides working together.”
The president doled out praise for Cox at the White House during that visit, saying, “Governor Cox, I promise I won’t tell anybody how much I like you. We’ll keep it quiet as long as we can.” And on Wednesday, he invited the governor and his wife, Abby, to join him in the motorcade from the airport to his hotel.
However, ahead of the president’s visit to Utah, Cox did voice disapproval for the president’s decision to designate nearly one million acres around the Grand Canyon as a national monument, calling it a “mistake.”
But their focus here in Utah is on an issue both believe to be bipartisan at its core. The president will mark one year since the PACT Act was signed into law after passing Congress on a bipartisan basis, even though no members of Utah’s congressional delegation – all Republicans – voted for the bill.
Since the bill was passed, more than 4.1 million veterans have received toxic exposure screenings, with more than $1.85 billion “in earned PACT Act-related benefits [delivered] to veterans and their survivors,” according to a fact sheet from the White House. The White House also touted record applications for VA benefits, with 1.95 million claims submitted by veterans and survivors in the past fiscal year, a 37% increase from the prior year. That, the White House said, includes “843,448 PACT Act- specific claims applications.”
The bill is also personal to the president, who has previously linked toxic smoke exposure to his late son Beau Biden’s cancer.
“Toxic smoke, thick with poison spreading through the air and into the lungs of our troops. When they came home many of the fittest and best warriors that we sent to war were not the same. Headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer. My son Beau was one of them,” Biden said last year at the bill signing.
The president’s trip puts him in front of a deeply Republican electorate in the state. Biden lost Utah to former President Donald Trump by more than 20 points in 2020, and the state hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson won in a landslide.
Utah is the second solidly Republican state the president has visited since launching his reelection bid. Biden visited South Carolina last month to make his “Bidenomics” pitch.
But his trip to Utah also serves a more lucrative purpose: Biden will make a second stop in tony Park City, a luxury ski destination, for a campaign fundraiser as he looks to build up his campaign war chest during the summer months when fundraising is often sluggish.