When a president is riding high, he has coattails. When a president is sinking low, he has cooties. We’re now entering a cootie season, otherwise known as the congressional midterms.
And just as Democrats fled from Bill Clinton in ’94, and as Republicans fled from George W. Bush in ’06, the candidates linked by party affiliation to Barack Obama dearly want him to stay away. Heck, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill isn’t even on the ballot this November, but when asked yesterday whether she’d want to campaign with Obama this year as a red-state incumbent, she replied: “Probably not.”
Presidents typically suffer from the midterm blues. In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sixth year (the ’38 midterms), Democrats got slaughtered. In Dwight D. Eisenhower’s sixth year (the ’58 midterms), Republicans coughed up 48 House seats. In Ronald Reagan’s sixth year (the ’86 midterms), Republicans lost the Senate. In George W.’s sixth year (the ’06 midterms), Republicans lost the House and Senate. Clinton actually bucked the sixth-year curse in the ’98 midterms – the Democrats picked up seats, thanks to the GOP’s impeachment overreach – but the ’94 midterm gave us House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Obama is unlikely to buck the historical trend – which is why so many Democratic candidates are distancing themselves with all deliberate speed. When asked by reporters whether they’d welcome his appearance on the same stage, their responses are the diplomatic equivalent of “No, I plan to be walking my dog” and “No, I plan to be washing my hair.”
For instance, incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana (who skipped a recent Obama appearance in New Orleans): “The president is more focused on running the country….He is not on the ballot, I’m on the ballot.”
And incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor: “In Arkansas, people don’t vote for you because somebody else says vote for you.”
And Senate hopeful David Domina of Nebraska: “I don’t see endorsements as important at all. I wouldn’t be looking for the president’s campaigning assistance.”
And Senate hopeful Natalie Tennant of West Virginia: “I’m running to put West Virginia first, and I will stand up to the president.”
And incumbent Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska: “I don’t need him campaigning for me….I don’t care to have him campaign for me.”
And some ’14 candidates have just voted with their feet. Incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan was nowhere in sight last month when Obama delivered a speech on her North Carolina turf. Mary Burke, the gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, took a powder last month when Obama did an event there. Hagan said she skipped out because she was urgently needed in Washington; Burke said she had “a full day scheduled” elsewhere in Wisconsin.
All the aforementioned states, with the exception of Wisconsin, voted for Mitt Romney in ’12. Obama’s baggage is especially heavy there – as well as in Montana and South Dakota, where Democrats are also defending Senate seats. For Obama, all those states will be no-fly zones. Better for him to stay away than to risk public embarrassment. Which is what happened to Bush in 2006 when he staged a midterm rally in Pensacola, Florida…and the Republican gubernatorial candidate suddenly decided that he had very urgent business in Palm Beach.
(This was the best ’06 example of the midterm shuffle: The beleaguered White House sent Dick Cheney to stump in Newark for Thomas Kean Jr., the New Jersey state senator. Cheney and Kean were supposed to appear together, but Kean was AWOL. Cheney did the gig anyway, alone. Fifteen minutes after he left, Kean showed up. Instead of taking the speedy New Jersey Turnpike, Kean had chosen to travel on Route 1, which is always bumper to bumper in the late afternoon. Kean’s spokeswoman simply explained, “It was two ships passing in the night.”)
Anyway, Obama reportedly told Democrats last week that he understands their plight, and that he’ll stay away as best he can – while trying to raise money for their races at private fundraisers. That was also the basic Bush formula in ’06. And that was the senior George Bush formula back in 1990. A lot of Republican candidates didn’t want him on the stump, because he had broken his “no new taxes” campaign pledge. Bush strategist Ed Rollins told the ’90 candidates that it was fine if they wanted to distance themselves. (The White House, stung by that advice, wanted to fire Rollins. Rollins refused to go.)
Bottom line: When candidates flee their own president, it’s a sign of big trouble for the incumbent party. And no president was more verbally manhandled by his own party than Bill Clinton in ’94 (look how that election turned out). When a freshman Democratic congressman was asked whether he’d welcome Bill to his Georgia district, he replied, “Only if (he’s) coming to endorse my opponent.” When a male Tennessee Democrat was asked the same thing, he replied, “I’d rather kiss (a male Republican) on the lips at noon in front of the courthouse.”
And yet, here’s what we’re seeing now: Bill Clinton, 14 years out of office, preparing to hit the hustings for Democratic candidates in a slew of states. With the passage of time, albatrosses can become icons. By that calculation, Barack Obama should be a big draw on the midterm stump in 2030.
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