In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama’s political coattails extended across the country. But heading into this year’s midterm elections, Democrats face a tricky task of where to deploy their party chief on the campaign trail as they try to hang onto majorities in both houses of Congress.
President Obama’s record over the past 17 months has been mixed: His party won a series of special House elections, but he put himself on the line as Democrats lost a pair of high-profile gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia. Then there was the special senatorial election in Massachusetts, where even a personal last-minute pitch by the president couldn’t stop Republican Scott Brown from winning the seat long held by liberal lion Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Still, even as poll numbers have dropped from their lofty post-inauguration levels, campaigns have requested varying levels of involvement from Mr. Obama — from large rallies and local fundraisers to smaller, more targeted efforts such as “robocalls” in a certain part of a district. And there are places like California, where Mr. Obama is both a big draw and a stellar fundraiser, racking up as much as $1.5 million in his last visit on behalf of incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
“I think you can pretty much follow the red-blue map there,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report. “Obviously, he can be an asset in places like Illinois, California, certainly Connecticut, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Washington state, he can go to all those places … he probably should not go to Indiana.”
In that state, Rep. Brad Ellsworth, the Democratic nominee to replace retiring Sen. Evan Bayh, is positioning himself as a moderate trying to replace another moderate in a state that’s usually red, but went narrowly for Mr. Obama over Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
Whether Mr. Ellsworth will ask Mr. Obama to stump for him is a popular topic in Indiana. On his website, the Republican candidate, former Sen. Dan Coats, has repeatedly dared Mr. Ellsworth’s campaign to invite the commander in chief, pointing to disapproval numbers among voters in the Hoosier State that are higher than the national average. The Ellsworth campaign has told local media outlets the president is welcome at any time.
The Obama question is particularly sensitive for candidates running as outsiders in the face of strong anti-Washington sentiment this election cycle.
Even in the reliably blue state of Connecticut, the presumed Democratic senatorial candidate, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, was unsure in February whether he would ask Mr. Obama for a hand.
“I can’t comment at this point,” he told the New Haven Independent, when asked whether the president would be a boon to or a drag on his campaign.
The Democratic Senate nominee in Kentucky, state Attorney General Jack Conway, said he plans to “win this election on my own,” when asked earlier this month whether he would ask for the president’s help, according to the Associated Press. In Louisiana, Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon, who is challenging Republican incumbent Sen. David Vitter, appeared alongside Mr. Obama during a visit to survey the response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but has stressed that he vehemently opposes the administration’s six-month blanket moratorium on deepwater drilling that is unpopular in the state.
Asked about plans for Mr. Obama’s deployment this fall, a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, would only promise that the president’s campaign efforts “will take him to all parts of the country.”
Mr. Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, can prove a potent fundraiser for candidates at private events for committed party members, even if a more public appearance is not on the schedule.
The White House official noted that Mr. Obama will “help to raise the funds necessary to run competitive campaigns.”
The Democratic National Committee is doing all it can to capitalize on Mr. Obama’s popularity among Democrats this fall as a party official concedes they face a strong historical precedent for midterm losses by the party that has just captured the White House.
“We understand that our efforts are not going to be a panacea to overcome the tide of history, but we can stem it somewhat with these efforts if we use our money and resources strategically,” the official said, referring to get-out-the-vote efforts by the party’s Organizing For America grass-roots network. Indeed, the official said the group is expanding its reach, with 20 percent of last year’s online donations coming from new donors who did not contribute in 2008.
But Republicans argue that Mr. Obama’s declining popularity will translate into a much lower presidential profile on the campaign trail this fall.
“Barack Obama is an albatross for Democrats,” RNC spokesman Doug Heye said. “As his popularity has tanked, more and more Democrats want his money, but not public support.”
Pennsylvania, a state where Mr. Obama won handily in 2008 but where his approval ratings now have fallen below the national average, is a good test case. In a recent special election to replace the late Rep. John P. Murtha, Democrats were able to hold onto a House seat in a competitive southwestern district but Mr. Obama did not campaign there, and new Rep. Mark Critz ran against some of his policies.
Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, noted that Mr. Obama has been to the state five times since taking office, but said it’s unclear whether he would give a boost to the Democrats’ pick for the Senate, Rep. Joe Sestak. Mr. Madonna said he thinks that’s because voters in Pennsylvania elected Mr. Obama to fix the economy — while other parts of his expansive domestic agenda, such as health care reform and the cap-and-trade energy proposal, are acutely unpopular in the Rust Belt state.
Of course, the Sestak case is a special one, given the controversy over former President Bill Clinton’s overtures to the candidate about a possible White House position before his primary race with White House-backed Democratic incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter.
“I don’t think [Mr. Sestak] has the president on speed-dial,” Mr. Madonna quipped.
Some red-state Democratic candidates, including embattled Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, have tailored their use of the president to fit their districts. Facing a tough primary fight, the incumbent used robocalls and radio advertisements with Mr. Obama’s voice in certain parts of the state, while relying on Mr. Clinton, and not Mr. Obama, as her big gun at campaign rallies.
In Missouri, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan blamed a scheduling conflict for not appearing alongside Mr. Obama during a March fundraiser he held for Sen. Claire McCaskill — who’s not up for re-election until 2012, earning taunts from the campaign of Republican rival Rep. Roy Blunt.
But the Democratic senatorial candidate joined Mr. Obama a month later when he returned for a tour of an ethanol plant and made remarks on the economy. It’s a similar story in Ohio, where Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, running for Senate this fall, avoided the president during his two previous trips to the state, but changed course and appeared with Mr. Obama late last week in Ohio to tout the 10,000th road project funded by the president’s economic stimulus package.
Mr. Obama has been most active on behalf of California’s Mrs. Boxer and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, though he also has helped raise money for Sen. Michael Bennet, a freshman Colorado Democrat facing both a tough primary and general election. This past February, the president packed three fundraisers into one day, raising as much as $700,000 for Mr. Bennet in Denver and then hopping to Las Vegas, where he raised $1 million appearing with Mr. Reid at a private DNC fundraiser.
Democrats said they would like to see the White House even more engaged, and that Mr. Obama has a lot riding on the results of the election. One Democratic strategist pointed to Republican lawmakers like Rep. Darrell Issa, who could be a real thorn in the administration’s side if Republicans were to win control of the House. In a speech to members of the Pennsylvania GOP, the California Republican and Obama critic vowed to double his staff and take full advantage of his subpoena power to force the White House to turn over documents if he becomes chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, according to Politico.
“I think that story really sort of shapes the stakes here,” the strategist said. “It would be, obviously, just a very grave scenario for the White House.”
Mr. Bush faced a similar situation during the 2006 congressional elections. He was a tremendous fundraiser, and most Republicans were all-too-happy to have him help on that front, but many in the GOP still tried to distance themselves from his policies in public.
According to published reports, from 2007 through July 2008, Mr. Bush raised $134 million and attended about 30 fundraisers for Republican candidates. In the previous election cycle, the Republican National Committee claimed the president had done 50 events and raised more than $160 million for candidates through August 2006.
A Democratic Party official says the party does not compile similar numbers, and Ms. Duffy said there is no way to make a one-to-one comparison with Mr. Obama because there are some donations, such as from lobbyists and political action committees, that he won’t take. She also said he funnels more money through Democratic congressional campaign arms than Mr. Bush did through Republican organizations.
But a gander at any of Mr. Obama’s fundraising appearances demonstrates his money-raising prowess. In April, he attracted an estimated $2.5 million in a pair of events for the Democratic National Committee in Miami. An appearance at a Manhattan, N.Y., fundraiser for House Democrats’ campaign arm raked in $1.3 million.
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