White House Works Hard to Influence State Elections

President Obama greets New York Gov. David A. Paterson after a speech Monday in Troy, N.Y. Aides to the president have encouraged the Democratic governor, who is faltering in opinion polls, not to run to keep his job next year.
President Obama greets New York Gov. David A. Paterson after a speech Monday in Troy, N.Y. Aides to the president have encouraged the Democratic governor, who is faltering in opinion polls, not to run to keep his job next year. (By Mike Mcmahon -- Pool)
By Anne E. Kornblut and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An administration that came to Washington promising to rise above politics has quickly immersed itself in trying to influence an array of state-level elections, with an eye to both the fate of President Obama's agenda and his prospects for winning a second term in 2012.

While White House officials shrug off suggestions that they are any more involved in trying to improve the prospects for their party than were their predecessors -- and argue that there is no single figure playing the kind of politics-first role that Karl Rove occupied in George W. Bush's administration -- the president and his aides are becoming increasingly active in the political arena.

Earlier this month, Obama reached out to former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) to ask him to endorse the state's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, R. Creigh Deeds, after Wilder publicly praised the Republican nominee, Robert F. McDonnell.

"I'll just say he called and made his position known," Wilder said in an interview Monday.

Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina, meanwhile, has been bird-dogging the Massachusetts legislature, trying to persuade lawmakers to pass a bill allowing the Democratic governor to pick an interim successor to the late senator Edward M. Kennedy, a move that could be vital to the prospects of Obama's health-care overhaul in Congress.

In Colorado, Obama picked sides in the Democratic Senate primary last week, endorsing Sen. Michael Bennet as he faces a primary challenge from former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff. Obama had already endorsed party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) despite a primary challenge from a Democratic congressman.

On Monday, Obama was greeted at an airport in New York by Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson, whom White House officials had urged only days earlier to consider quitting his faltering 2010 campaign.

"The focus of the president and his White House is the big challenges facing the country at home and abroad," said deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer. "Unlike in the past, electoral politics is the not the driving force in the White House, it is just one of the many ways to ensure the president's agenda for change is enacted. It's the substance that decides the politics, not the other way around."

While there is nothing unusual about a sitting president and top members of his staff becoming involved in state-level elections, Obama and his advisers have unapologetically embraced politics since the president took office. At the same time, they have taken some real risks, both by getting involved in Democratic primaries and, in the case of New York, doing so even when it will not directly affect the balance of power in Washington.

"As an outsider, it seems undisciplined," said Sara Taylor, who served as director of political affairs in the Bush administration. "If it's not a state critical to your boss's election, and nor can you add a legislative vote, why would you be expending capital?"

White House officials said their aim is to strengthen the Democratic Party at both the state and federal levels, something Obama's allies are eager to see. In New York, officials are concerned about Paterson, whose approval ratings are anemic in recent polls, topping the Democratic ticket next year when several Democratic House members could be vulnerable and a Senate seat is in play.

There is no single Rove figure in the Obama White House. While Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is perceived as the political mastermind, he has handed off most of the day-to-day duties to Messina, who holds a daily conference call with the Democratic National Committee to discuss developments in local races and frequently consults with the candidates themselves. White House political director Patrick Gaspard and Sean Sweeney, senior adviser to Emanuel, are the other key players, officials said.

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