Obama and primary candidates kept each other at arm's length

Democratic voters in Pennsylvania have picked U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak as the party's nominee and rejected 80-year-old Arlen Specter in his first Democratic campaign since his GOP defection. (May 18)
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

If Tuesday night's elections were a referendum on President Obama, it was not because he sought to make it that way.

In fact, Obama mostly held the candidates at arm's length.

It was in keeping with his pattern as president -- largely distancing himself from Democratic candidates and declaring early on that there is little meaning to be found in isolated off-year elections. In race after race, the wariness has been a two-way street, with candidates reluctant to bring in a president with mediocre approval ratings and the White House reluctant to link him too closely to a potential loser.

The White House arguably had its hands tied in the races that were decided on Tuesday night. Obama was all but required to endorse Arlen Specter (Pa.) after the senator switched parties to become a Democrat and voted to support several of the president's initiatives, including the health-care overhaul. But the White House viewed Specter as a problematic candidate in the Democratic primary -- a former longtime Republican, and worse, one that his opponent cast as an opportunist -- and exhibited caution in sending the president to help (Obama went once).

Similarly, in Arkansas, a state Obama lost and where his approval ratings are low, local operatives wanted him only in small doses. He recorded a radio ad for Sen. Blanche Lincoln that was targeted at the large African American communities in the Memphis media market. But he never visited, and although that was at the campaign's request, it also signaled the measured approach of the administration, several strategists inside and outside the Obama operation said.

The president also did not get involved in the House race in Pennsylvania, a special election for the 12th Congressional District seat held by the late John P. Murtha and the one race that Democrats widely described as a bellwether for the November midterm elections.

White House officials and analysts alike cautioned against overinterpreting Tuesday's results.

"The only one that makes any real difference in terms of the president is PA-12 -- and he didn't go," political analyst Charlie Cook said of Obama. "He didn't stick his neck out real far for Blanche. He didn't stick his neck out for Specter; he did the minimum. There were a lot of interesting races out there, but for the White House, the PA-12 is the only one that matters."

Two White House advisers agreed, saying the Pennsylvania House race was the only one that had, in the words of one, "the most potential to tell you about the fall" elections, because it pitted a Democrat against a Republican.

A year and a half into his term, Obama's mixed electoral record has perplexed operatives who thought his charisma and tactical skill would yield a stronger-than-ever Democratic majority. Instead, Democrats have lost the biggest elections so far on his watch -- the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey and the Senate seat that belonged to the late Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.).

White House officials have had an explanation for each: weak candidates, campaigns that failed to sufficiently embrace the president and a toxic political environment that is hostile to incumbents.

But Obama's strategists also note that special House elections have repeatedly swung their way, and that could make a much more material difference keeping control of the House. On Tuesday, hours before the polls closed, administration officials were observing how close the Pennsylvania House race appeared. "If this is a Republican landslide year, then why is it too close to call hours before the polls close? If they can't win one race, how will they handle 100 of them?" one senior official said.

Still, no one denied that Obama's role has been limited.

Obama made just one trip to Pennsylvania for Specter, visiting Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on Sept. 15 and holding a fundraiser that raised $2.7 million. Vice President Biden went to Pennsylvania for the senator three times, most recently on April 23, when he attended a rally and a fundraiser.

Last Friday, Biden also did a round of radio interviews for Specter. Separately, Biden made a trip to Pennsylvania for the Democratic House candidate, Mark Critz.

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