LOS ANGELES — For the first time in this election season, President Obama on Thursday actively campaigned with a congressional candidate, stopping by the headquarters of California state Sen. Ted Lieu (D) for a pep talk with supporters.
What would normally be an ordinary campaign ritual stood out as an extraordinary event because sagging popularity and multiple foreign crises have rendered the president a no-show on the 2014 campaign trail. Even some Democrats who hold nearly identical policy positions, such as Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, have opted not to appear beside him.
But there are two areas in which the president still represents a significant advantage for Democrats: raising campaign cash and mobilizing the base.
And as a result, Obama remains a key component of the Democratic midterm election strategy.
“The Republicans have the Koch brothers and Karl Rove,” said Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who was on hand to welcome Obama at Lieu’s office. “We have the president.”
The president’s trip to California this week underscores Israel’s assessment. Over the course of 21 / 2 days, Obama is attending four fundraisers in Los Angeles and San Francisco for the Democratic National Committee, including one Thursday night at the Los Angeles home of actress Gwyneth Paltrow. He also is holding a couple of public events — one at a tech incubator and another showcasing a new national monument — aimed at highlighting his commitment to millennials and the Latino community, respectively.
On a broader level, both the resources Obama has funneled to his party and his handling of domestic and foreign policy will help determine the outcome of next month’s election. For the first time, the DNC has put on staff more than two dozen lawyers to ensure that its supporters aren’t blocked from casting their votes, rather than relying on volunteer attorneys to litigate election cases after the fact. And Israel acknowledged the extent to which Obama draws economic contrasts with the GOP and said that “continuing to do a good job in fighting [Islamic extremists] in Syria is even more important” than his “retail campaigning.”
In an interview, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the fact that voters dislike Obama’s handling of critical issues explains why “he’s busy raising for Democrats who want to make believe they have nothing to do with him.”
“But those Democrats can’t escape the fact that they’re the president’s choice for Senate, no matter how hard they try,” Priebus said. “The only reason they’re in the game is because of the money the president is raising for them.”
Several Democratic candidates in conservative states are taking extreme measures to separate themselves from Obama. Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), declined to say Thursday whether she voted for Obama in the past two elections.
And during a debate Tuesday, Michelle Nunn, the Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia, pointed out that Obama’s days in office are numbered. “My name is on the ballot. We have two more years of President Obama, and then we will have another president.”
For the most part, Obama’s retail campaigning has been nonexistent. But he is eager to get out, according to his aides, and has devoted ample time to attending high-dollar party events. The president has done 52 events for either Democratic Party committees or the party’s super PAC affiliates, including 26 DNC fundraisers and 11 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
While party officials will not disclose how much Obama has raised through these events and multiple online solicitations, it reaches into the tens of millions. The DNC recently erased the more than $22 million debt it accumulated during the 2012 election, and the DSCC is now the largest outside spender in multiple contests that will help decide control of the upper chamber next year.
DNC spokesman Michael Czin said the money Obama has helped bring in has “built the Democratic Party’s largest voter protection program in a midterm year,” allowing the committee to hire lawyers in more than 20 states, ranging from Colorado to Georgia. The DNC recently decided to do a seven-figure radio buy, Czin added, which it wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t eliminated its debt.
And Obama’s e-mail solicitations also pay dividends. Since January 2013, the DNC has received more than 2.3 million grass-roots donations, according to a committee official, 78 percent of which were under $50. Israel said putting Obama’s name on a DNC e-mail “raises more money than anyone else.”
That money does not change the fact that the president remains a political liability for many Democratic Senate and House members seeking reelection in conservative-leaning states and districts. After Obama said last week that his “policies are on the ballot” this fall, his former adviser David Axelrod sought to minimize the remark’s impact on vulnerable candidates by calling it “a mistake.”
Instead, party strategists are relying on Obama to help lure some drop-off voters — including single women, Latinos, African Americans and younger voters — in an election where the intensity is on the Republicans’ side for the moment. He will record calls as well as radio ads for targeted markets, such as African American stations.
“There’s a lot the president is doing to make sure those voters are engaged and enthusiastic,” DSCC spokesman Matt Canter said.
Obama used his visit to Lieu’s headquarters to emphasize the importance of turnout, telling volunteers, “California is right at the heart of the battle for control of the House.” Their day-to-day work, he added, was “how I was able to get elected.” Lieu is running against Republican Elan Carr, a prosecutor, for the seat held by retiring Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D).
In addition to California, Israel said the president would be welcome in Illinois and New York, where several House seats are up for grabs. Obama also is scheduled to campaign for Connecticut’s governor next week.
“Every candidate in every competitive district understands they’re not going to win without Democratic voters, and every one of them would like to have the president help them turn out Democratic voters,” Israel said, although he declined to say where Obama would be appearing between now and Election Day.