The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Memo to Democrats: Running from Barack Obama won’t work

West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall has a problem.

He's a Democrat running for reelection this November in a district where President Obama won just 33 percent of the vote in 2012. And he's trying to run as far away from Obama as possible. But it's not working.

Earlier this month, Rahall -- in an attempt to argue his independence from the national Democratic Party -- told The Hill newspaper that he "probably" supported George W. Bush more when the Republican was in the White House than he has supported President Obama.

Whoops! Turns out that claim isn't true, according to PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking service. In fact, it's not close to true. Rahall has voted in support of Obama's stated policy positions roughly three-quarters of the time since 2009, while he backed Bush's stances only 31 percent of the time during the eight years the Republican held the presidency. As PolitiFact writes: "While Rahall's level of voting support for Obama was lower than it was for all but 10 other Democrats in 2013, even that weak level of support is more than 27 percentage points higher than the most pro-Obama Republican in the House -- Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, who supported Obama about 31 percent of the time in 2013. So it's a stretch for Rahall to portray his voting record as being virtually Republican."

Rahall consultant Allan Crow explained the congressman's statement this way:  "The point Congressman Rahall was making was that when it comes to issues that are important to West Virginia, he has always been willing to stand up to the president, [Environmental Protection Agency] or anyone and put West Virginians first. In fact, this same PolitiFact article includes the opinion that 'on issues of urgent importance to his constituents, such as regulations that are perceived to be a threat to coal mining, Rahall has not been hesitant to vote at cross purposes to Obama.'"

Fair enough. But there's something bigger at work here than what Rahall said and what Rahall meant. And that is the (likely) doomed attempts by House members sitting in tough districts to distance themselves from an unpopular sitting president of their own party.

Remember Earl Pomeroy? He held North Dakota's at-large congressional seat, somewhat easily, from 1992 to 2010 despite the state's Republican tilt. Faced with a serious challenge in a bad year nationally for Democrats in 2010, Pomeroy ran this ad touting his support for George W. Bush's Medicare prescription drug plan.

It didn't work. Pomeroy lost to Republican Rick Berg by 10 points.

The message then is the same as the message now: No matter how much or little you support the president of your party, you will be forced to own that president by the opposing candidate/campaign. It's what Democrats did to Republicans sitting in swing districts and states in 2006 and what happened to Pomeroy, Gene Taylor (Miss.) and lots of other Democrats like them in 2010.

And it's what's happening to Rahall now. Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)(4) group aligned with the conservative Koch Brothers, is spending heavily on ads like this one linking Rahall to Obamacare.

While there are a handful of circumstances where politicians can effectively distance themselves from an unpopular national figure in a federal race -- Joe Manchin's 2010 Senate bid in West Virginia comes to mind -- the reality for most candidates, especially in the House, is that there just is no way to run away from your president. Rahall, whose poll numbers are plummeting, is learning that lesson right now. And he's learning it the hard way.