Labor Day marks the traditional start of the autumn campaign season, and the biggest question is whether President Obama will sink his party. Since the fight for the Senate is being waged largely in the red states – where Obama has always been deemed toxic – it’s no wonder that Democratic candidates are behaving as if he has a communicable disease.
The disease of unpopularity can be fatal in politics, and there’s no way they want to catch it. In the words of veteran Washington chronicler Elizabeth Drew, “Probably not since Richard Nixon have so many candidates shied away from being in the presence of their party’s president when he shows up in their states…Democrats’ unwillingness to praise, defend, much less celebrate the president has left the field clear to his multitude of attackers.”
Obama is in a very tricky position. He can’t campaign side by side with red-state Senate candidates – they don’t want him; they fear he’ll turn off swing voters – but he can’t totally sit out the races, either. Even in red states, Democrats can’t win without decent turnout from the liberal base; Obama is still popular with the liberal base. He’s in great demand to raise money from the liberal base. And particularly in southern states, that base is heavily African-American. It’s a given that Obama will work that base under the radar, via tageted robocalls and black radio call-ins and appeals on social media.
But being AWOL on the stump, being treated as a pariah…these woes often afflict presidents in their sixth year. Still, as Liz Drew rightly noted, the disrespect is endemic this time around. When Obama flew to North Carolina last week at address the American Legion, Senate incumbent Kay Hagan duly surfaced on the tarmac to kiss his cheek; after that, she publicly avoided him. And shortly after he left the American Legion confab, she delivered a speech assailing his administration’s treatment of war veterans.
It’s virtually the same story everywhere. In the key red-state Senate races, Obama might as well be sporting a Kick Me sign on his posterior. In Lousiana, incumbent Mary Landrieu is attacking the president for refusing to OK the Keystone pipeline; she says his energy stance is “simply wrong.” In Alaska, incumbent Mark Begich has bluntly said, “I don’t need him campaigning for me.” In Kentucky, challenger Allison Lundergan Grimes is lauding the wonders of coal and attacking Obama’s EPA for “pie in the sky regulations.”
Democrats in Arkansas (incumbent Mark Pryor), West Virginia (open-seat candidate Natalie Tennant), and Georgia (open-seat candidate Michelle Nunn) have similarly distanced themselves. This is understandable, given the fact that Obama lost all those aforementioned states in 2008 and 2012 – but quarantining Obama is also the strategy in Colorado, which Obama won in 2008 and 2012. When the president flew to Colorado this summer to helm a fundraiser for incumbent Mark Udall, Udall chose to stay behind in Washington, to conduct purportedly urgent business.
Let’s not pretend that this albatross theme is new; presidents are often a drag on their parties in year six. In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s year six (the ’38 midterms), his Democrats lost six Senate seats and a whopping 81 House seats – signaling the virtual end of his domestic New Deal. In the ’58 midterms, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s GOP lost 48 House seats. In the ’86 midterms, Ronald Reagan’s GOP lost the Senate. In the ’06 midterms, George W. Bush’s GOP lost the House and the Senate.
But history is surely no comfort to current Democrats whose careers are on the line. The incumbents are being painted as clones of Obama, even though (as with Hagan, Begich, and Landrieu) objective observers rate them as centrists. So their autumn tightrope act is very precarious. They don’t want Obama around, but they want the money that only he can raise. They don’t want Obama to articulate an overarching midterm message, for fear that they’ll suffer guilt by association, but they want him to somehow motivate the base by taking the fight to the GOP.
And yet, despite all of Obama’s political woes and the pitfalls of being tied to his tenure, virtually all the red-state Senate Democratic candidates are in decent shape or striking distance. A Republican net gain of six Senate seats – sufficient to hand the majority leader job to uber-obstructionist Mitch McConnell – is by no means a certainty. Obama may be a drag on the Democrats, but the Republican brand is not exactly stellar.
Midterm elections are typically low-turnout affairs; the bottom line for Democrats is that these races are winnable if the base shows up in sufficient numbers to trump right-wing enthusiasm. In the end, Obama’s under-the-radar communication (to working women and Hispanics, as well as to blacks) could be crucial. The base has its own beefs about Obama, but the choice this year is between the imperfect and the repugnant. If Democrats stay home in November, they’ll get the Senate they deserve.
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