For red-state Democrats fighting for their political lives this November, the strategy for lining up powerful endorsements seems to be A.B.O.: "Anyone but Obama."
It's not that these endangered Democrats are fleeing the party. Indeed, Senate candidates in places like Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia are quick to embrace other popular party leaders, including former President Bill Clinton and even progressive darling Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who have already stumped alongside many of them. But when it comes to Obama -- whose approval rating is sputtering in the low 40s nationally and whose health care law and stance on issues like gun control remain deeply unpopular in much of red America -- candidates in the president's own party seem to want to stay away with a 10-foot pole.
Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, considered one of his party's most vulnerable incumbents, has raised money with Clinton, a former Arkansas governor. Spokesman Erik Dorey described Pryor's event with the former president as “wildly successful” and said the senator is grateful for the counsel and support of both Clinton and his wife, former secretary of state and potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Pryor faces a tough challenge from Republican Rep. Tom Cotton in a state Obama lost to Mitt Romney in 2012 by a 24-point margin, 61-37%.
When asked why Obama hasn’t been to Arkansas to campaign alongside Pryor (the president toured tornado damage with Pryor in May, but hasn’t done anything campaign-related), Dorey said, “Arkansans don’t need to be told by anyone how they should vote. We’re running a race based on the contrast on Mark Pryor’s record and that of our opponent. We’re making that case perfectly well.” The between-the-lines message seems clear: Obama's presence would not help.
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, is in high demand among red state Democrats. He's campaigned twice for Kentucky Senate challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, who's challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The former president is also scheduled to headline a fundraiser for Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu on Saturday, attend a fundraiser for Georgia Senate candidate Michelle Nunn on Sept. 13 and host a luncheon for Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina on Sept. 30. All three are running in states where Obama lost decisively in 2012.
That's why many of these candidates have actively distanced themselves from Obama. While Hagan met the president on the tarmac when he disembarked in North Carolina late last month to deliver a speech on veterans -- kissing him on the cheek and providing fodder for the GOP -- she made clear ahead of his trip that she believes his administration "has not yet done enough to earn the lasting trust of our veterans."
Similarly, Landrieu has gone after Obama for refusing to greenlight the Keystone oil pipeline. And in Kentucky, Lundergan Grimes has attacked Obama’s “pie in the sky regulations” aimed at her state’s coal industry.
Obama's absence is particularly striking given that the ultra-progressive Warren -- vilified by many conservatives -- is being called on for fundraising help by many red-state Democrats. West Virginia Democratic Senate candidate Natalie Tennant – who has skewered Obama over new EPA coal regulations and has refused to say whether she would have voted for Obamacare – stood beside Warren in her state this summer, reportedly raking in $100,000 with Warren's help in just a few short days. Warren also stumped for Lundergan Grimes in June.
Daniel van Hoogstraten, communications director of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said Warren was “definitely well received” when she campaigned with Tennant, discussing education, the middle class, and standing up to Wall Street. When asked if Bill and Hillary Clinton would be as well received, van Hoogstraten said “we’d have to see.” But Obama? That was a definite “no,” he said.
The Tennant campaign has no plans to invite Obama to stump in West Virginia. Tennant campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said Tennant’s GOP challenger, Shelley Moore Capito, is “desperate to make this race about President Obama and Washington politicians” while Tennant is focused on working families and issues that affect West Virginia, like combating drug abuse.
Out west, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, locked in a competitive race in Colorado against GOP Rep. Cory Gardner, was immediately pounced on by Republicans when he made a last-minute decision to skip Obama’s fundraiser for him in his home state earlier this summer. Udall’s team said it was because the senator wanted to stay in D.C. to cast a vote on Obama’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- but the optics were not good, suggesting he did not want to be seen standing next to Obama.
Landrieu similarly chose to accept a ride on Air Force One with Obama back to her home state last fall but did not appear with him as he toured the Port of New Orleans for an event about the local economy. Vice President Joe Biden stumped for Landrieu instead.
While some Democrats in vulnerable states have been hesitant to weigh in on whether they would want to campaign with Obama, Alaska’s Mark Begich candidly told CNN earlier this year he’s “not really interested in campaigning” with the president and that “I don’t need him campaigning for me -- I need to change some of his policies.” Begich faces a stiff challenge from Republican Dan Sullivan in a state Obama lost by 14 points to Romney in 2012.
Obama is in a tricky spot. He has said that keeping control of the Senate is a top priority for him in 2014. After all, his second term agenda would be in serious trouble if the GOP takes charge of both houses of Congress. But he may have to watch the midterms from the sidelines. Any time he enters the fray, he ends up hurting the side he's trying to help.
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University, said it’s not new for unpopular second-term presidents to stay in safe states during midterm elections, but this cycle seems “worse than usual.”
“President Obama is not going to be able to help the Senate in any way except for raising money from afar,” said Zaino. That’s exactly what Obama seems to be doing, holding fundraisers for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
Republicans need to gain six Senate seats this fall to retake control of the Senate. But Democrats have more defending to do. Of the 36 Senate seats up for grabs, 21 are held by Democrats and 15 by the GOP.