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Dick Polman: Will Obama cost Democrats the Senate?

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Dick Polman
September 2, 2014

Labor Day marks the traditional start of the autumn campaign season, and the biggest question is whether President Obama will sink his party. Since the fight for the Senate is being waged largely in the red states—where Obama has always been deemed toxic—it's no wonder that Democratic candidates are behaving as if he has a communicable disease.

Obama is in a very tricky position. He can't campaign side by side with red-state Senate candidates—they don't want him; they fear he'll turn off swing voters—but he can't totally sit out the races, either. Even in red states, Democrats can't win without decent turnout from the liberal base, and Obama is still popular with the liberal base. He's in great demand to raise money from the liberal base. And particularly in southern states, that base is heavily African-American. It's a given that Obama will work that base under the radar, via targeted robocalls and black radio call-ins and appeals on social media.

But being AWOL on the stump, being treated as a pariah—these woes often afflict presidents in their sixth year. Still, as veteran Washington chronicler Elizabeth Drew rightly noted, the disrespect is endemic this time around. When Obama flew to North Carolina last week to address the American Legion, Senate incumbent Kay Hagan duly surfaced on the tarmac to kiss his cheek. After that, she publicly avoided him. And shortly after he left the American Legion confab, she delivered a speech assailing his administration's treatment of war veterans.

It's virtually the same story everywhere. In the key red-state Senate races, Obama might as well be sporting a “Kick Me” sign. In Louisiana, incumbent Mary Landrieu is attacking the president for refusing to OK the Keystone pipeline. In Alaska, incumbent Mark Begich has bluntly said, “I don't need him campaigning for me.” In Kentucky, challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes is lauding the wonders of coal and attacking Obama's EPA for “pie in the sky regulations.”

Democrats in Arkansas (incumbent Mark Pryor), West Virginia (open-seat candidate Natalie Tennant), and Georgia (open-seat candidate Michelle Nunn) have similarly distanced themselves. This is understandable, given the fact that Obama lost all those aforementioned states in 2008 and 2012—but quarantining Obama is also the strategy in Colorado, which Obama won in 2008 and 2012. When the president flew to Colorado this summer to helm a fundraiser for incumbent Mark Udall, Udall chose to stay behind in Washington, to conduct purportedly urgent business.

Let's not pretend that this albatross theme is new; presidents are often a drag on their parties in year six. In Franklin D. Roosevelt's year six (the 1938 midterms), his Democrats lost six Senate seats and a whopping 81 House seats—signaling the virtual end of his domestic New Deal. In the 1958 midterms, Dwight D. Eisenhower's GOP lost 48 House seats. In the 1986 midterms, Ronald Reagan's GOP lost the Senate. In the 2006 midterms, George W. Bush's GOP lost the House and the Senate.

And yet, despite all of Obama's political woes and the pitfalls of being tied to his tenure, virtually all the red-state Senate Democratic candidates are in decent shape or striking distance. A Republican net gain of six Senate seats—sufficient to hand the majority leader job to uber-obstructionist Mitch McConnell—is by no means a certainty. Obama may be a drag on the Democrats, but the Republican brand is not exactly stellar.

Midterm elections are typically low-turnout affairs; the bottom line for Democrats is that these races are winnable if the base shows up in sufficient numbers to trump right-wing enthusiasm. In the end, Obama's under-the-radar communication (to working women and Hispanics, as well as to blacks) could be crucial. The base has its own beefs about Obama, but the choice this year is between the imperfect and the repugnant.

If Democrats stay home in November, they'll get the Senate they deserve.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at dickpolman7@gmail.com. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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