Biden revisits decaying Wisconsin bridge to announce $5B for infrastructure in election year pitch

Joe Biden
Posted at 9:44 AM, Jan 25, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-25 10:44:53-05

WASHINGTON (AP) — The last time President Joe Biden visited Superior, Wisconsin, he warned of the danger posed by the deteriorating John A. Blatnik Memorial Bridge — pointing out the decades-old corrosion that had weakened the overpass connecting the two port cities in Wisconsin and Minnesota and vowing to fix it.

Biden is returning to that bridge at the tip of Lake Superior on Thursday to announce nearly $5 billion in federal funding that would upgrade it and dozens of similar infrastructure projects nationwide, as the Democratic president jump-starts an election year push to persuade voters to reward him for his policy achievements in office. Biden is making his pitch in a critical swing state that's part of the "blue wall" trio of states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — where he defeated Republican President Donald Trump in 2020.

More than 33,000 vehicles travel on the Blatnik Bridge every day, but heavy trucks are barred from it because of its decaying condition. That, in turn, has caused lengthy detours. Without additional federal funds, the bridge would have had to shut down by 2030, according to the White House. It is getting $1 billion in federal funding for upgrades and repairs.

The money comes from a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that Biden signed into law more than two years ago.

"It will save families time on their commutes. It will allow trucks to get goods to shelves more quickly and will boost businesses and small businesses across Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, that are looking for just a little breathing room and the opportunity to build generational wealth," White House deputy chief of staff Natalie Quillian said.

Though the president's visit on Thursday is not officially a campaign event, his sharpened focus on Wisconsin with the election less than 10 months away highlights its place as one of a shrinking handful of genuine battleground states.

Four of the past six presidential elections have been decided by less than a percentage point in Wisconsin, with Trump winning narrowly in 2016 against Democrat Hillary Clinton before losing to Biden by a similar margin in 2020.

All signs point to Wisconsin remaining nearly evenly divided, even as Democrats have made gains in recent elections. A Marquette Law School poll released in November showed the 2024 presidential race to be a toss-up with the election a year away.

Democratic leaders in Wisconsin have stressed the importance of Biden visiting the state. Clinton's defeat in 2016 was blamed in part on the fact that she never campaigned in Wisconsin after winning the Democratic nomination.

"He needs to be here, simple as that," Democratic Gov. Tony Evers told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this month.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan agreed, saying he has told Biden he must visit Wisconsin to highlight his investments in roads, bridges and broadband internet expansion and his efforts to bring down inflation and fight climate change.

"He wants to do that," Pocan said. "He certainly understands the importance of Wisconsin."

It's not just Biden. Vice President Kamala Harris was in Wisconsin on Monday to promote the administration's efforts to protect abortion rights, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will be there Friday to talk up Biden's economic policies.

When Biden visits Wisconsin on Thursday, it will mark his eighth trip to the state as president and his second to Superior, a city of 27,000 residents along the shores of Lake Superior just across the border from Minnesota.

He's expected to tout the more than $1 billion in federal funding, including from the infrastructure bill he signed into law, to replace the Blatnik Bridge, which connects Superior and Duluth.

Ahead of Biden's visit, Democrats in Wisconsin have been on a winning streak. They have won 14 of the past 17 statewide elections, including Biden in 2020, Evers in 2022 and Janet Protasiewicz in April. Her victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race took majority control of the court away from conservatives for the first time in 15 years, and she sided with the liberal majority in December in striking down Republican-drawn legislative maps. The court is now considering new maps that would greatly reduce Republican legislative majorities.

Republicans have had wins, including reelecting U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson last year, picking up a congressional seat and increasing majorities in the state Senate and the Assembly. But those gains were overshadowed by the losses in the presidential, governor's and Supreme Court races.

Democrats have been able to chip into the once-reliably conservative Milwaukee suburbs that saw GOP support drop in the Trump era. Democrats also capitalized on population gains in Dane County, home to the liberal capital city of Madison and the University of Wisconsin.

The Democratic moves have been able to help offset Republican gains made in rural areas during the Trump era.

Republicans chose Milwaukee for their national convention in July, with Democrats gathering just across the border the following month in Chicago.

Longtime Wisconsin Republican strategist Brandon Scholz said even Republicans who are not firm backers of Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination after wins in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, are driven to defeat Biden in what appears to be an increasingly likely rematch of 2020.

"Republicans are like sharks smelling blood in the water," Scholz said. "They see Biden as weak. ... Biden can come to Wisconsin a thousand times, and I don't think it's going to change his position."