With Election Day drawing near, the country’s most influential Democrat is finally weighing in on the midterm elections. But the big question for some worried Democrats is whether President Obama could do them more harm than good.
On Tuesday, Republicans were celebrating what they saw was a political gift from Obama in the form of sound bite perfect for an anti-Democratic attack ad. Obama told the Rev. Al Sharpton that even vulnerable Democrats trying to keep their distance from him are all “folks who vote with me. They have supported my agenda in Congress.”
The remark seemed to undercut the efforts of many embattled Democrats to distance themselves from an unpopular president. It was the second time this month that Obama has put himself front and center in the midterm debate, giving Republicans a quote to tie himself to Democrats who are trying hard to keep their distance.
Already despairing about their midterm prospects, some Democrats say they are not happy with the approach Obama took with Sharpton.
“If this is a strategy, it’s not one that was devised with any input from Senate leadership,” said one senior Democratic Senate aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about his party’s troubles.
The White House stressed Tuesday that Obama has been supporting Democratic candidates all along behind the scenes. He has headlined dozens of fundrasiers and provided logistical and tactical support from his 2012 campaign. And he has been key to motivating party base voters ahead of the Nov. 4 election.
“Democrats who are running in red states, blue states and in so-called purple states are going to need the strong support of those voters who supported the president in his reelection campaign,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
But Democrats on Capitol Hill worry privately that Obama’s remarks will complicate the final leg of the campaign, which is shaping up as an uphill climb for the party. Senior Senate aides said Tuesday that Senate Democratic leaders never asked the White House for Obama’s help in explaining the difficulty some Democrats have in being too closely associated with him, and they said that his remarks were not part of any coordinated effort to gin up turnout among young and minority voters, who have been less eager to vote in midterm elections.
Obama told Sharpton on Tuesday that he sees his job as getting out his base — in that case, African American voters.
“These are folks who are strong allies and supporters of me,” Obama told Sharpton of the candidates that are telling him to stay away. “I tell them — I said, you do what you need to do to win. I will be responsible for making sure that our voters turn out.”
Obama has started to do that publicly, appearing at rallies for gubernatorial candidates in two strongholds: his hometown of Chicago and in Prince George’s County, Md., where 65 percent of voters are African American. He was scheduled to attend a rally last week in Bridgeport, Conn., a city that ran out of ballots in 2010, something officials blamed on enthusiasm garnered by a visit from Obama.
Obama’s interview with Sharpton is part of a series of interviews he is conducting on African American radio shows, including with Steve Harvey and Yolanda Adams. And the president is scheduled to campaign next week with Democrats — all governors and one congressional candidate.
“I bet there are a whole bunch of folks listening to your show who might not even know there’s a midterm election going on,” Obama said on “The Rickey Smiley Morning Show.” “I need everybody to go vote.”
As word spread of the remarks, several heated exchanges went back and forth along both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Senate Democrats continue to believe that the best service Obama can provide is through fundraising.
Not being uniformly welcome on the campaign trail by Democrats is a marked shift for Obama, who ascended to the presidency in part because of the power of his campaigning. Now his biggest asset is being able to quietly raise enormous amounts of money. His fundraising schedule has been packed this year, and he has almost single-handedly moved the Democratic National Committee out of debt. Obama has also shared the data his campaign collected on supporters nationwide in 2012, which allows congressional and gubernatorial candidates to recruit volunteers in battleground states.
“The fact of the matter is the president has spent a lot of time over the past couple of years trying to boost the candidacy of Democratic candidates, both incumbents and challengers, all across the country,” Earnest said.
In his appeal to the base over the past few weeks, Obama has stressed a populist economic message, seizing on issues including the Affordable Care Act, middle-class families, raising the minimum wage and equal pay for women — issues that rile up his core supporters.
“I am not on the ballot this fall,” Obama said. “But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them,” Obama said at Northwestern University this month.
But Obama has made it clear in the past that he considers himself a part of the midterms.
“Despite having told Michelle that I’d already run my last campaign,” Obama said at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser in Weston, Mass., in June, “It turns out I had to tell her I got one more left.”
Obama has long said that Democrats have a “congenital defect”: not voting in midterm elections. This cycle, he is pleading with his core supporters to vote — and to bring as many like-minded friends and family members along as possible.
“You’ve got to grab your co-workers. Don’t just get the folks who you know are going to vote,” Obama said in Chicago on Sunday. “You got to find cousin Pookie. He’s sitting on the couch right now watching football — hasn’t voted in the last five elections. You’ve got to grab him and tell him to go vote.”
A senior Senate Democratic aide said that while Senate contenders agree with Obama on issues such as equal pay and student-loan debt, “our candidates also disagree with the president on many issues, and they’re not afraid to voice it.”
The Democratic candidate for Senate in Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, has tried so hard to avoid being associated with Obama that she refused to say whether she voted for him. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) has taken pains to distance himself from Obama, shunning a Democratic fundraiser the president attended in Denver in July.
“Let me tell you, the White House when they look down the front lawn, the last person they want to see coming is me,” Udall said in September.
Earnest said Tuesday that it is up to each candidate to turn out voters.
“Ultimately, those Democratic candidates will have to develop their own strategies in their states,” Earnest said, and he is not one to “second-guess” whether they should tell Obama to stay away.
Regardless of what happens next month, Earnest said the White House will get some of the credit — or blame.
“I am confident that if Democrats are able to hold onto the majority in the United States Senate, that there will be plenty of credit to go around,” Earnest said. “I’m also confident that if things don’t turn out the way that we hope and expect, that the president will get at least his share of the blame.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.