By Jessica Taylor - 01/30/14 06:00 AM EST
There wasn’t much praise for President Obama coming from vulnerable 2014 Senate Democrats immediately after he finished his State of the Union address Tuesday.
But then again, there wasn’t supposed to be.
Red state Democrats instead used the speech to take shots at Obama on issues close to their constituencies, a strategy the party looks to be embracing to hold on to its Senate majority.
Sen. Mary Landrieu blasted Obama for not mentioning the Keystone oil pipeline. “I’m disappointed,” the Louisiana Democrat said.
Sen. Mark Pryor didn’t mince words either. Perhaps the nation’s most endangered Senate Democrat, he said Obama was “heavy on rhetoric but light on specifics about how we can move our country forward.”
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) was especially terse, calling out Obama for delivering “a lot of sound bites” when Alaskans needed to hear “a clear plan and commitment to economic growth.”
Democratic strategists said drawing those contrasts with the president is smart politics, and exactly how the party won unlikely races in Montana and North Dakota last cycle.
“At the end of the day, red states are red states for a reason. They didn’t vote for the president, and voters in those states want their members of Congress to be representing them, not the president,” said Democratic pollster and Hill columnist Mark Mellman.
Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C.) was more cordial toward the president, but said she wanted more focus paid by the administration on trade deals that could affect Tar Heel state manufacturers and endanger those jobs.
“Specifically, I’ve called on the administration to protect textile manufacturers, ensure equal treatment for tobacco farmers and continue to provide incentive for North Carolina bioscience companies to develop potentially life-saving drugs,” she said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Tuesday let its candidates speak for themselves, and didn’t put out a statement boosting Obama.
While the White House saw the State of the Union address as giving something for Democrats to run on, a DSCC spokesman argued its candidates had cultivated reputations apart from the president.
“Democratic Senate candidates won in half the states that Mitt Romney won [in 2012]. Senate races are not ‘live and die with the president,’ ” said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky.
Democratic hopefuls running for open Senate seats echoed the members they hope to soon call colleagues.
In coal-heavy West Virginia, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) is the underdog against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), but she seized the chance to put further space between herself and Obama on the environment.
“If the president wants to promote opportunity, he needs to rethink his energy policies. The president is wrong on coal and I will fight him or anyone else who wants to take our coal jobs,” she said.
And in libertarian-leaning Montana, Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D) criticized the president over the National Security Agency’s controversial domestic spying program.
“[L]ike most Montanans, I believe the president must do more to protect law-abiding citizens and end the NSA’s surveillance program. As leaders, we must have the courage to responsibly cut our debt, cut spending and live up to the promises made to America’s veterans,” he said.
The criticism doesn’t mean Obama won’t end up helping Senate Democratic candidates in other ways. While incumbents might publicly criticize Obama, and even sidestep visits to their state, the millions he’ll help raise for the DSCC and other groups will be instrumental in helping Democrats defend their majority and fend off GOP challengers.
Republicans are hoping though that the president’s growing unpopularity, especially in critical swing states, will prove too much of a burden. Democrats are already at an electoral disadvantage in a typical drop-off midterm year, and Republicans were crowing on Wednesday that if the speech was meant to rally the president’s base and save their candidates, it fell flat.
“Simply put, over the past five years Democrats have proven that they not only don’t have the right solutions to get America growing again, they lack the credibility to be trusted to keep their promises,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in releases that hit each Senate candidate.
But for all the tongue-wagging from the president against Congress and his promise to go around them by executive order if necessary, some Republicans say the way Democrats are now trying to distance themselves from the president could drag them down even more. If the president is going to ignore Congress for the next two years anyway, why not elect a Republican in a Republican state?
“In the states they have to fight for, the president is disliked, distrusted, if not despised,” said one national GOP strategist. “The reason a Democrat can get elected is because they think they have the ability to stop President Obama. But he may render them irrelevant.”