By JONATHAN MARTIN and ASHLEY PARKER
March 15, 2014
WASHINGTON — Democrats are becoming increasingly alarmed about their midterm election fortunes amid President Obama’s sinking approval ratings, a loss in a special House election in Florida last week and millions of dollars spent by Republican-aligned groups attacking the new health law.
The combination has led to uncharacteristic criticism of Mr. Obama and bitter complaints that his vaunted political organization has done little to help the party’s vulnerable congressional candidates.
The latest in a cascade of bad news came Friday when Scott Brown, a former senator from Massachusetts now living in New Hampshire, announced an exploratory committee to challenge the incumbent Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen, and when the Republican-aligned “super PAC” American Crossroads said it would spend $600,000 to help his effort.
Earlier, another top-tier Republican recruit, Representative Cory Gardner, decided to challenge Senator Mark Udall of Colorado; the two races create unanticipated opportunities improving Republicans’ chances to take control of the Senate. No prominent Democrats predict their party will win back the House.
Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress, state party officials and strategists revealed a new urgency about the need to address the party’s prospects. One Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Obama was becoming “poisonous” to the party’s candidates. At the same time, Democrats are pressing senior aides to Mr. Obama for help from the political network.
“I’m a prolific fund-raiser, but I can’t compete with somebody who has got 50-some-odd billion dollars,” said Representative Joe Garcia of Florida, a vulnerable first-term member who has already faced more than $500,000 in negative TV ads from third-party conservative groups. “One hopes the cavalry is coming. One hopes the cavalry is coming.”
The gap is yawning. Outside Republican groups have spent about $40 million in this election cycle, compared with just $17 million by Democrats.
When two senior White House officials — Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director, and Phil Schiliro, the health care adviser — went to the Capitol late last month to address Senate Democrats about the Affordable Care Act, they were met with angry questions about why Mr. Obama’s well-funded advocacy group, Organizing for Action, was not airing commercials offering them cover on the health law.
Among those raising concerns was Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who also has a low-key style and warm relationship with Mr. Obama.
“They did not want to hear about health care enrollment,” one source familiar with the meeting said, describing “a high level of anxiety.”
After the loss in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, which Mr. Obama carried in 2012, Representative Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm, asked the White House political director, David Simas, for additional help during a Wednesday meeting at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Responding to these concerns, several Democrats said Friday that Organizing for Action would cut back its fund-raising activities so the group would not be in competition with the candidates for donors. Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman for it, said, “We understand and expect that some of our more than 420,000 contributors will shift their focus to their local campaigns during the midterm season.”
Democrats also said that the White House would make Mr. Obama available for additional fund-raisers and that the president was starting to meet with small groups of the party’s largest contributors that could benefit the party’s own super PACS.
“Everyone is trying to send the signal: Don’t get ahead of yourself — 2016 is critical, but 2014 comes first,” said David Plouffe, the president’s former campaign manager.
Mr. Obama’s approval rating of 41 percent in a Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll last week matched that of a New York Times/CBS News survey in February and represents one of the clearest reasons for Democratic malaise. Since the post-World War II era, that measurement has been one of the most accurate predictors of midterm results, and any number below 50 means trouble for the party that holds the White House.
“The state of Democrats is very much tied to the state of the president, and in that regard, these are far from the best of times,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.
In addition to problems with the health law, the White House is losing the support of Democrats on key appointments such as Mr. Obama’s nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and his choice to be surgeon general. Also last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, broke with the administration with a scalding criticism of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Historical trends over all also argue against the president’s party in a sixth year. In 1958, Republicans lost 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate; in 2006, Republicans lost 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate. In the past 50 years, only Bill Clinton in 1998, when his approval ratings were much higher than Mr. Obama’s today, did not drag down his party in a second midterm; Democrats picked up five House seats.
Republicans also seem to be benefiting from the argument — reinforced by advertising and by their media surrogates — that Mr. Obama has presided over an activist government that has overreached and proved incompetent.
Most Democrats up for re-election are trying to put some distance between themselves and the president, choosing surrogates such as Mr. Clinton to campaign for them, particularly in the South and parts of the West.
Asked whether Mr. Obama is a liability, Representative Ami Bera, Democrat of California, demurred. “We haven’t really focused much on the president,” he said. “We’re focused on Sacramento County and the folks that are there.”
Other Democrats are openly critical of the health care law in their advertisements. In one ad promoting Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, Democrat of Arizona, the narrator says she “blew the whistle on the disastrous health care website, calling it ‘stunning ineptitude,’ and worked to fix it.”
Democrats also face a contradiction: As woeful as they are about their prospects in 2014, they are buoyant about their chances for winning the White House in 2016. Polls show that Hillary Rodham Clinton has clear leads over possible Republican challengers.
Even though special elections are rarely reliable predictors for future elections, Alex Sink’s loss to David Jolly in Florida’s 13th District last week added to the Democrats’ negative story line. Frightening Democrats further, none of the Republican third-party money in the race came from the Koch brothers,
the wealthy industrialists whose political groups have funded the bulk of the TV ads hammering Democrats this election cycle.
“Florida 13 doesn’t keep me up at night, but the aggregate Republican super PAC money makes me toss and turn,” Mr. Israel said.
This unease is also prompting Democrats to speak more candidly about what many see as the root cause for their political difficulties: the bungled unveiling of the health law, in particular the insurance website, and the White House’s failure to market the initiative effectively.
“The rollout left a bad taste in people’s mouth from Day 1, and it’s hard to create a new flavor now,” said Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee.
To stem losses, the Democratic National Committee is focusing on technology and data to give their candidates, as well as the state parties, the latest tools they will need to turn out the vote more effectively and efficiently. And Senate Democrats will try to make races about local issues rather than a referendum on Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama’s aides say he is not idly watching congressional Democrats drown in a Republican wave. By the end of June, the president will have attended 14 events for Democratic groups.
But on Capitol Hill, Democrats are furious that the same major contributors who enabled Mr. Obama and allied outside groups to raise over $1 billion for his re-election in 2012 are not rallying to ensure the president does not face a Congress controlled entirely by Republicans for his final two years.
Democrats say that the party needs more donors with the means of the California billionaire Thomas F. Steyer, who is helping candidates who support addressing climate change, to protect candidates who backed the health law.
“I’m not in the super PAC business, but we need somebody like a Steyer to get in the fight on the Affordable Care Act,” said Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky. Democrats, he said, are “getting beat to death.”