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From Messiah to Leper in Six Short Years

With no prospects for a successful legislative agenda in Congress and even his talk of governing by executive order not impressing either friends or foes, President Obama seems to be drifting inexorably toward lame-duck status. But there is no better indication of just how politically toxic Obama has become than the rumblings that came out of last week’s meeting between the president and Senate Democrats. As Politico reports, the White House has agreed to stay out of most of the key races that will decide whether Democrats retain control of the Senate this year. Given the fact that his poll numbers are under water and that even Obama was prepared to admit that “in some of your states I’m not the most popular politician,” this is smart politics. But it also shows just how far the mighty Obama political machine has fallen.

In discussions of the 2014 midterm elections, one of the key factors that explains why Republicans have an advantage in November is often overlooked: Barack Obama’s stunning victory in 2008. If Democrats are forced to defend 21 Senate seats this year—including some highly vulnerable ones in red states—it is because six years ago, enthusiasm for Barack Obama inspired a massive turnout for his party that enabled them to win eight seats, turning a narrow 51-49 majority into a 59-41 hold on power that (after the late Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democrats) briefly turned into a 60-seat majority that helped ram ObamaCare through the Senate. Nor can there be any argument that it was the Obama-driven “hope and change” turnout of minorities and young voters that helped put Democrats over the top in states like Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oregon.

The lineup of tossup races is different this year, but the Obama factor is again in play. The irony is that while Democrats need to generate the kind of turnout of key constituencies they got in 2008 and 2012 when the president was at the top of the ballot, endangered Democrats want no part of the president and are specifically asking him to avoid appearances in their states lest his presence taint their hopes of holding on to their seats. While Obama’s fundraising ability is still key to Democratic hopes and might be welcomed by incumbents cruising to victory in safe seats, those fighting for their political lives understand their only chance of survival is to run as foes or at least skeptics of the president and ObamaCare.

A breakdown of 2014 races shows that the seats most likely to switch hands are in Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. With the exception of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who is still favored to win reelection in Kentucky, Democrats currently hold all of these seats. Pundit Larry Sabato rates Alaska, Louisiana, and North Carolina as tossups, with the rest all considered likely GOP wins.

Republicans shouldn’t count their chickens before they’re hatched: at the moment the Democratic path to victory looks terribly steep. But what is particularly significant about the lineup of battleground Senate elections is that in order to prevail, Democratic incumbents are going to have spend the next several months distancing themselves from the head of their party. While all second-term presidents find it difficult to get their way in their last two years in power, the sixth-year midterms are generally their last chance for glory and influence. But in this case, President Obama is not so much being asked to avoid mistakes that might hurt his party as to shut up and stay out of those states where control of the Senate will be decided.

If Democrats lose the Senate this year it will be largely because of voter dissatisfaction with the president who helped sweep some of these incumbents into office in the first place. In six short years, Obama has gone from being a messiah to a leper that Senate Democrats are determined to shun. How are the mighty fallen, indeed. 


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