Running away from an unpopular president of your own party is a time-honored tactic in midterm elections. The problem is that it rarely works.
That is even truer than usual for the current crop of endangered Senate Democrats. Their efforts to distance themselves from President Obama’s record — rather than defend it — has become a source of friction with the White House.
“I’ve always believed that it’s not an effective strategy to run against a president of your own party, unless you’ve been actively opposed to that president,” said David Axelrod, who was Obama’s top political strategist in his two presidential campaigns and a senior adviser in his White House. “You’re going to get tagged with it anyway.”
With so many Democrats trying to suggest a distance from Obama that doesn’t exist, Axelrod added, it’s natural for the president and his team “to be a little frustrated.”
Another senior Democrat who advises the White House, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the current feeling among Obama and his aides is “exasperation.”
“He doesn’t think they have any reason to run away from him,” the adviser said. “He thinks there is a strong message there.”
The president has hinted at the tension in recent remarks. “Make no mistake, these policies are on the ballot, every single one of them,” Obama said earlier this month. He restated the obvious a few weeks later in a radio interview when he said of the Democratic senators who are struggling this year: “The bottom line is . . . these are all folks who vote with me; they have supported my agenda in Congress.”
Those comments spawned a barrage of Republican attack ads and a bout of frustration with Obama among Democrats at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Even Axelrod deemed the first one “a mistake,” telling NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “I wouldn’t put that line in there.”
But a new issue of Congressional Quarterly brings fresh evidence that Senate Democrats have maintained a tight formation behind the president, even as his approval ratings have sunk. It analyzed the 120 Senate votes on which Obama has urged a “yes” or “no” this year, and found that the most vulnerable Democrats stood behind him a minimum of 96 percent of the time.
Those kinds of numbers have become standard fare in Republican ads and speeches, but they stand in contrast to the Democrats’ own campaign rhetoric. Colorado’s Mark Udall (99 percent support, by CQ’s count) has said that he is the “last person they want to see coming” at the White House, while Alaska’s Mark Begich (98 percent) has described himself as “a thorn in [Obama’s posterior]. There’s times when I’m a total thorn, you know, and he doesn’t appreciate it.”
The most glaring example is Kentucky Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes’s continued refusal to say whether she voted for Obama — even though she was a delegate to the Democratic conventions that nominated him in 2008 and 2012.
These candidates are far from the first to try to put daylight between themselves and their president. In 1994, President Bill Clinton’s pollster Stanley Greenberg went so far as to tacitly advise them to do so, writing in a memo: “Voters want to know that you are fighting to get things done for them, not that you are advancing some national agenda.” The same was true for Republican candidates in 2006.
The two elections saw the president’s party lose control of both houses of Congress.
The impulse to try that strategy again is understandable in 2014, where so many of the Senate battles are being fought in states where Obama lost to GOP nominee Mitt Romney by double-digit margins in 2012.
But some Democrats argue that doing so forfeits the opportunity to make the case for their party’s policies and to draw a contrast with those of the Republicans. “By default, we lose a lot of these arguments, because nobody is willing to take them on,” said former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
There is an additional danger this year given the importance of turning out African Americans, most of whom support Obama but do not usually turn out to vote in midterms.
“There’s a real trap for some of these candidates,” Axelrod said. “If you’re seen as being openly disdainful, you run the risk of diminishing enthusiasm.”
That is not the dynamic in the House, because of the way the districts have been drawn.
“We don’t have any competitive Democrats in deep red districts. And in deep blue districts, the question isn’t whether you supported the president, it’s have you supported him 100 percent of the time,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Earlier this year, the White House and congressional Democrats appeared to be in harmony on a strategy, with an agreed-upon issue agenda. They would attempt to overcome a toxic political environment — and encourage minorities, women and young people to vote — by touting proposals such as expanding the federal minimum wage and passing equal-pay legislation.
But none of those issues has loomed as large as Obama’s unpopularity. Earlier this month, a Gallup poll found that more than half of registered voters see this election as a means of expressing their opposition to (32 percent) or support for (20 percent) the president.
The fact that Senate Democrats can point to little in their records showing independence from Obama reflects, in part, the continuing increase in partisanship on Capitol Hill.
The governing style of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is also a factor. Republicans have long complained that he allows relatively few opportunities to amend legislation; for Democrats, that means that their chances to distance themselves from the president are rare.
Congressional Quarterly pointed to Reid’s biggest power play — the so-called nuclear option, which made it easier to overcome filibusters against judicial and executive branch nominees. But it also meant Democrats are casting more votes that put them on record as siding with the president.
“Of the 120 Senate votes on which Obama has expressed a view so far this year, 102 were confirmation votes. Only 18 were legislative,” CQ wrote. “That is the most skewed tally since CQ began drawing a distinction between policy and confirmation votes in 1988.”
Paul Kane and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this story.