Shut out: Dem senators shun Obama on trail
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere and Manu Raju and Katie Glueck
February 10, 2014 05:02 AM EST
The White House and Senate Democrats are preparing an extensive midterm campaign strategy built around one unavoidable fact: Hardly any candidates in the most competitive states want President Barack Obama anywhere near them.
POLITICO spoke with nearly every incumbent up for reelection and aspiring Democratic Senate candidates across the country, but only a handful gave an unequivocal “yes” when asked whether they wanted Obama to come campaign with them.
“I don’t care to have him campaign for me,” said Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. “I’d rather him come up to see where his policies aren’t working. He’s wrong on ANWR, we’ve had struggles to try to get our permits done down in the southeast for our timber industry, I want to show him how important the military is in Fairbanks.”
Obama’s unpopularity could cost Democrats the Senate, but vulnerable incumbents need the full resources of the White House to hang onto the majority. So the president and party leadership are exploring how to deploy Obama and his team in a way that minimizes complications for Democrats in places like Colorado, Georgia or Kentucky where his polls are underwater. The White House also needs to buck the historic trend of the president’s party losing seats in the midterm election of his second term.
The president has committed to half a dozen Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraisers — so far — for 2014, with the first two expected in the coming weeks in New York and the Washington suburbs, Democratic sources tell POLITICO. He’s also pledged to attend fundraisers for the Senate Majority PAC.
Vice President Joe Biden, first lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton will hit the road instead. Democrats hope Hillary Clinton — whose office didn’t respond to requests for comment — will campaign as well.
The White House is also working closely with the DSCC on a full email and direct mail fundraising effort that Democrats are optimistic will itself raise as much, if not more, than the individual events, sources familiar with the planning say. White House sources say it’s part of a “comprehensive effort” 2014 effort that will include House and governors’ races.
Obama told Senate Democrats at a meeting at Nationals Park last week that he knows his health care law will be used as the “No. 1 attack tool” on Democrats by the Koch Brothers, citing the conservative billionaires by name, according to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
“He said, ‘I understand in some of your states I’m not the most popular politician,’” Durbin, the Senate majority whip, said. “So if you’re going to break from the White House on an issue or a position, understood. But I can help many of you, even in states where I’m not popular with everyone. I can still help, and I’m willing to do everything I can.”
Clinton — and possibly Biden — will be taking the lead for Democrats in his native Arkansas, with Obama staying far away as Sen. Mark Pryor tries to defend his seat. In an interview, Pryor downplayed the role any surrogate would play in his campaign — even though Clinton has already helped with fundraising.
“I don’t get people to come and campaign for me very often,” Pryor said. “To me, in Arkansas, people don’t vote for you because somebody else says vote for you.”
Asked about the prospects of Obama or Biden coming to help, “I’m not going to tell anybody not to,” Pryor said. “We’re going to make the race about Arkansas.”
Biden was a previously unreported attendee in an Oval Office meeting last week with Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil, Democratic sources say.
“I’ve been invited to go into, well, over 128 races so far,” Biden told CNN last week. “And so there are some places the president is considerably more popular than I am, but there’s some places where I can go in and the president can’t.”
Several sources said the White House is debating how and where to deploy the first lady. In 2012, many of her events on behalf of the president’s reelection were focused on voter registration, and so she could help promote turnout and energize the Democratic base without endangering candidates by a close connection to the president — particularly in places like New Orleans, where local turnout could make the difference for Sen. Mary Landrieu.
“They will help us a lot — in lots of different ways,” Bennet said. “I think they’re both committed to doing everything they can to help us.”
Asked if Michelle Obama would campaign for Senate Democrats, Bennet said: “I certainly would hope so. I certainly would love it if she did, but she has other responsibilities, too.”
The president is still likely to hit the trail at some point later this year, although those decisions have yet to be made. He has a busy travel schedule in February and March focused on international affairs — a California summit with the king of Jordan and trips to Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Vatican City, where he’ll meet Pope Francis.
In addition to the president and vice president appearing on behalf of the Senate Majority PAC — one of several PACs they’re expected to help fundraise for in the coming months, including the House Majority PAC — there are hopes for appearances by top White House officials like Valerie Jarrett, Denis McDonough and John Podesta, though those haven’t been discussed yet.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton is in heavy conversations to campaign and fundraise in Arkansas, Kentucky, Georgia and Louisiana, four states where Democrats are pushing hard and his numbers are extremely high. He’s already committed to an event later this month for Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Speaking separately to Senate Democrats last week, Bill Clinton urged his party to fully embrace Obamacare, despite the program’s unpopularity in key states.
“I think President Clinton gave us good advice: Steer the boat into the wind here,” Durbin said. “Don’t try to run from this. Explain why you voted for it, admit the parts that haven’t worked, including the rollout, but really focus on what this does — tell the stories about people who have benefited.”
Even if they embrace Obamacare, some Democrats have other ways to separate themselves from the White House.
Natalie Tennant, running in West Virginia, focused on administration regulations on coal.
“I’m running to put West Virginia first, and I will stand up to the President or anyone else to do what’s right for our state,” her campaign said in a statement. “The president is wrong on coal — we simply cannot have an all-of-the-above energy policy that doesn’t include coal.”
David Domina, a Senate candidate in Nebraska, said he’s not seeking Obama’s help.
“I don’t see endorsements as important at all. I wouldn’t be looking for the president’s campaigning assistance, and I don’t think it would make a difference,” Domina said in an interview. “If anyone came to Nebraska from Washington, D.C., who occupies any elected office there today and tried to appear with either the Democrat or Republican running for U.S. Senate, that person would be a distraction. That distraction would be a mistake.”
Republicans say there’s no way for Democrats to suddenly break with the president.
“The problem is [they are] the people who voted for his policies down the line, including Obamacare,” said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “If they think they’re going to separate themselves from those votes because the president doesn’t show up and stand next to them and put his arm around them, I think they’re mistaken.”
But not everyone is keeping clear of the president.
Shenna Bellows, running in Maine, said it would be helpful if Obama showed up.
“The president’s emphasis on civil rights, women’s rights and economic equality are winning issues in a blue state like Maine,” Bellows said.
Rep. Gary Peters, who’s running to replace Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, appeared with Obama on his official trip to East Lansing on Friday.
And Landrieu said that even in her own competitive race, she’d be eager for Obama to come back to Louisiana. “President Obama is very well-respected, and you know, if he chooses to come and campaign for me, I’d be honored to have him,” she said.
Landrieu didn’t show when Obama came to the port of New Orleans to talk about exports in November, but she said she’d happily appear with him at a campaign event in the future.
“But he is not on the ballot. I’m on the ballot,” she said.
Jay Stamper, running in a likely losing cause against South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, said he’d love Obama’s help.
“It would be wonderful for voter turnout to have the president campaign for Democrats in South Carolina,” Stamper said via email. “I support the president’s efforts to help maintain a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate and will do everything I can to help.”
Most incumbents and hopefuls, though, wouldn’t go that far — including generally Obama-friendly Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who stuck with their general policy of not answering questions from reporters in the Senate corridors.
Or they tried to avoid the topic.
“You know, I campaigned with the president in 2012,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. “He may come back, I don’t know what he’s going to do.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.