President Obama understands the stakes in the midterm elections all too well. If Republicans take back the Senate in November that will give them a stranglehold on both Houses of Congress and ensure that the president will get nothing passed in his final two years in office. If the talk about the president being a lame duck hasn’t already begun, such a result would ensure him being consigned to irrelevance for the remainder of his term. While the GOP missed chances to win seats in the last two election cycles, 2014 offers them a golden opportunity with the Democrats defending 21 seats (including five in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012) to only 14 for their opponents.
But rather than sit back and wait to see if vulnerable red-state Democrats up for reelection can survive, the administration has decided to send in the cavalry. As Politico reports, the White House is consciously seeking to promote initiatives designed to help Democrats win over wavering moderates as well as mobilize the liberal base. But this plan, which reportedly includes more consultations with embattled Democratic incumbents, is a mistake. While the Democrats understand that they must somehow divert attention from problems with ObamaCare and focus voters on their income inequality agenda that polls far better than the president’s disastrously unpopular health-care law, their instincts here run counter to the best interests of some of their candidates. The last thing Democrats in places like North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, or Alaska need is an attempt to nationalize an election. If they have any hope of holding onto their majority in the Senate it lies in keeping the president and his agenda out of their states.
The White House is right that even in red states Democrats often prosper by playing the populist card on big business and abuse of the poor. Obama’s proposals for increasing the minimum wage and lengthening unemployment benefits may be economic snake oil, but they poll well everywhere. But the last thing Senators like North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, or Arkansas’s Mark Prior need is for Obama or his agenda to become part of this year’s election narrative. To the contrary, their main hope rests on keeping the president out of their states and putting the focus on divisions within the Republican Party.
The only reason Harry Reid is still the Senate Majority Leader is that in 2010 and 2012, Republicans found themselves saddled with poor candidates in crucial races that turned almost certain victories into defeats. Democrats can’t count on the second coming of such godsends as Sharon Angle in Nevada (who let a vulnerable Reid off the hook), the wacky Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, or the unfortunate Todd Akin in Missouri (whose dreadful gaffe about abortion and rape tarnished every Republican in the country). But their goal has to be to keep the public’s attention on conflicts within the GOP and demonizing Tea Party activists who form a crucial part of the conservative base.
As Politico notes, the president is key to fundraising efforts for Democratic Senate candidates but some of those benefitting from his skill in bringing out liberal donors want to keep him at a distance. For instance, Hagan won’t be anywhere near Obama when he campaigns in North Carolina this week for his economic agenda. She understands, as do many other Democrats facing the voters this year, that sympathy for the working class and the poor doesn’t necessarily translate into affection for a president with negative poll ratings. As recent polls show, Hagen has her hands full in a race in which she currently trails every one of her possible Republican opponents.
With the president set to rally his troops behind his effort to revitalize a disastrous second term with a shift to the left, the temptation to try to nationalize the election this year may be irresistible to the White House’s political operation. But without a popular president on the ballot this year and with an off-year turnout likely to see many of his supporters staying home this November, they would be wise to avoid injecting Obama into the already difficult battles Democrats face in red states. Having largely ignored the needs of Democrats in both the House and the Senate during his first five years, the president may think more attention paid to their races will help keep him relevant in 2015 and 2016. But if he is to have any chance of holding onto the Senate, he should stay out of races where he is more of a burden to his party than an asset.