Obama looks to oust red governors from blue states
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
December 2, 2013 06:28 PM EST
President Barack Obama won reelection last year warning voters about what he called an extreme Republican agenda that would roll back the social and economic victories of the previous years.
But that agenda is on the move in the states, and on the ballot in next year’s most competitive governors’ races — all of them in places he won in both 2008 and 2012: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Maine and Michigan.
The White House has committed to its first Democratic Governors Association fundraising event of the cycle and pledged to help candidates next year, people familiar with the discussions confirmed to POLITICO. But while the president can raise cash and draw out party loyalists, his low approval ratings could hurt Democrats at the polls.
Governors, including John Kasich in Ohio, Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, won in 2010 in part because of the anti-Obama backlash and have worked to implement the exact agenda Obama campaigned against last year: lower taxes on the wealthy, government program reductions, voting rights challenges, labor cuts, gay rights opposition and moves against reproductive rights like defunding Planned Parenthood.
Holding the Senate and making gains in the House in next year’s midterms are essential to Obama’s hopes of broadening his legacy, but concerned Democrats say statehouse wins would have a more immediate affect on policy and be the first step to reversing some of the redistricting that’s left a majority in the House largely out of reach for the party.
“Anyone who cares about a progressive agenda — and that includes our president — ought to be paying very close attention to what’s happening in the states,” said Nathan Daschle, the former executive director of the DGA. “If I were him, I would be doing everything I can to raise money for the DGA and help elect Democratic governors, because these are the people who are going to protect his legacy.”
Winning states twice — most of them by comfortable margins — hasn’t stopped a combination of Obamacare anxiety and Obama fatigue from the president’s numbers sinking locally in the same way that they have across the country, threatening to make him a drag on Democratic candidates again.
“If it were right now, I don’t know that any Democrat running for governor would like the president involved,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, including in his own state, where Corbett is a top Democratic target.
To Republicans, the damage Obama will do to other Democratic candidates will help them show that the presidential elections were candidate-specific, and voters actually prefer the conservative approach to managing government, which they say has produced successes the president hasn’t.
“In Florida, Obama and [Mitt] Romney were trashing each other and talking about Medicare, really not talking to people about the things that were relevant to the lives of Floridians. We don’t have that noise right now. We have the Rick Scott story of job creation,” said Florida GOP chair Lenny Curry. “What are the president and Charlie [Crist] going to run on, Obamacare?”
Democratic campaigns say that the records Republican incumbents have built up — and how closely they match the Romney agenda — explain polls showing challengers running strong, and poised to capitalize on the same voters who delivered their states for Obama last year.
“It’s no secret in Maine that Gov. [Paul] LePage is completely aligned with the Romney agenda that was rejected by voters last year, and we’ll see that rejection again at the polls next year,” said Lizzy Reinholt, communications director for top Democratic prospect Rep. Michael Michaud, pointing to LePage’s own recent comment that “about 47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don’t work” as evidence of the direct connection between LePage and Romney.
“The same Republicans who are implementing a Romney agenda are struggling politically and at the top of all of the ‘most endangered incumbent’ lists,” Daschle said. “Health care has given Republicans something to crow about, no doubt, but that’s a federal message that works at the federal level.”
“Here in Ohio, one of the areas where we believe Kasich is vulnerable is in his economic stewardship,” said Matt McGrath, spokesman for Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who’s the expected Democratic nominee against Kasich. “Our point: He’s essentially implementing Romney Economics — cut taxes for the rich, make the middle class pay more, and with predictable results.”
A year from the election is too far out to schedule campaign stops, but that may not be long enough to have enough distance from the president’s current problems. Corbett challenger Rep. Allyson Schwartz, for example, ducked a question put to her coming off the House floor about how Obama would factor into her race, and other battleground Democratic gubernatorial campaigns declined to make their candidates available for interviews about the president as well.
Whatever the president’s overall standing, he’ll always be able to help whip up core Democratic turnout, whether during specific campaign stops or official trips to competitive territory to talk up base-rallying issues like immigration reform. No one would be surprised or unhappy to see him show up in Cleveland, or Philadelphia, or Miami in an appearance like the one he made in Northern Virginia for Terry McAuliffe in the final weekend of last month’s race.
But that was Obama’s only appearance for McAuliffe. In New Jersey — where GOP Gov. Chris Christie was always far ahead — Obama’s involvement for Barbara Buono consisted of him taking a picture with her on a receiving line.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz says the president will be involved.
“Everyone here understands what’s at stake in the governor’s races next year and how voters in these states will be making critical choices with lasting impacts. That is why the president is committed to helping candidates who share his priorities prevail next November,” Schultz said.
Democratic Governors Association spokesman Danny Kanner predicted unity among the party in defeating Republican governors’ agenda of a “failed economic philosophy and radical social agenda that punishes women, immigrants, young people, gay Americans and middle-class families.”
Democrats also are nursing outside hopes of defeating GOP governors in Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada. And in Connecticut, Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy is facing a tough rematch against the Republican he barely beat in 2010.
In addition to the legislative agenda, Democrats are living with the results of the 2010 takeover that led to Republicans redrawing congressional district lines that could ensure GOP control of the House of Representatives through the decade.
The DGA will host a Dec. 9 annual meeting in Washington for all of their candidates, hoping to map out how to replicate the success McAuliffe had in connecting opponents to the GOP brand and approaching presidential-level turnout. Another open question is how much access gubernatorial campaigns will have to the famed Obama data lists. That data are being transferred in part to the Democratic National Committee.
So far, Obama hasn’t said much about Obama state Republican governors, though he did highlight the cooperation between the administration and Kasich on Medicaid during a trip to Cleveland last month.
“The old saying is, ‘I’ll come in and campaign for you or against you, whatever helps the most,’” Kasich told POLITICO at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., in November.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do, Kasich added. “I’m sure he’ll have to come in. … I feel like we’re not some personal enemies. That’s always good in politics. But I’m pre