Four years ago, Democratic senators from traditionally Republican turf trumpeted Barack Obama, serving as envoys to skeptical conservative voters and helping him come tantalizingly close to carrying states like Missouri and Montana on the way to his historic victory.
But with their own names on the ballot this fall, many of these same politicians are now walking a perilous tightrope, distancing themselves from a polarizing president while also making sure his core supporters, especially the first-time voters he brought to the polls in 2008, turn out to pull the Democratic lever.
“In this particular polarized year, it’s an extremely difficult task,” said Larry Sabato, an election expert at the University of Virginia. “There’s almost no way for them to decouple their campaigns from that of Obama.”
Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, running for a second term in November, is the signature example. She was co-chair of Obama’s 2008 campaign and among his most visible surrogates, appearing with him regularly on the trail and in TV ads. While the president came up just short in the Show Me State—losing to John McCain by fewer than 4,000 votes out of nearly three million cast—2012 is a different story.
“Missouri isn’t even going to be vaguely close,” says Sabato. While a recent poll shows Obama and Romney effectively tied in Missouri, Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, the North Carolina-based Democratic outfit that conducted the survey, acknowledged that as the Republican base unified around Romney, the state would probably slip out of the president’s grasp.
“This will not be part of the path to 270 for Obama, but if he stays close there it could help Claire McCaskill,” he said.
Except McCaskill, who performed respectably in the Kansas City suburbs and carried a significant chunk of rural white voters in Southeast Missouri when she won her seat in 2006, has a political brand—as a moderate who is tough on some social issues like illegal immigration—to protect. Last week, Karl Rove’s Super PAC, Crossroads GPS, went on the air with an ad called “Obama-Claire,” ripping the senator for having “voted with President Obama 90 percent of the time.”
McCaskill’s response will be to “steer clearer of the president” this year, said Marvin Overby, a political scientist at the University of Missouri. “You’re going to see her appealing to the base in ways that may not be obvious to your average white suburban voter.”
As they attempt to separate themselves from a weak economy and unpopular Obama initiatives like the 2010 healthcare law, Senate Democrats like McCaskill, Jon Tester in Montana and Bill Nelson in Florida—all of whom backed Obama in 2008 and supported his signature programs since then—will deliberately make a few headlines for their relatively superficial differences with the White House.
“What I’m pretty much seeing across the board is efforts by incumbents and challengers alike to draw some distinctions with the administration,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor at the Cook Political Report.
Tester, a prominent Obama ally in 2008 as the president made a serious play for the Big Sky State (ultimately losing by a few percentage points), is being pummeled on the airwaves for his association with the president.
“The only picture you’ll see this year of Jon Tester and Barack Obama is one paid for by the Republicans,” said Craig Wilson, a veteran political observer in Montana.
Tester’s narrow 2006 win came in no small part because of help from Governor Brian Schweitzer, the folksy populist with significant crossover appeal to Republicans. Tester and McCaskill, following the examples of the more-popular Democratic governors in their states—Schweitzer in Montana and Jay Nixon in Missouri—diverge with the White House on a few hot-button issues like the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s a sign they’re willing to do whatever they have to do to signal independence to white voters angry at the Obama administration.
At the same time, these senators need to demonstrate to base voters that they’re loyal to the party’s core priorities.
“It’s tough, and not everyone’s good at doing it,” said Overby, citing McCaskill’s opposition to funding for academic research at the National Science Foundation as a way to show her independence from Washington without savaging a party priority. “It’s one of those things that conservatives point at and poke fun at, and she’s been a vocal critic of it.”
Making things even more complicated—and in some cases, the administration’s effect on down-ballot members of the Democratic Party more toxic—is the president’s high-profile embrace of marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“We’re not as redneck as some would say we are,” said Wilson, citing significant support for medical marijuana and civil unions in the surveys he conducts at Montana State University in Billings. But the marriage issue is “something Tester has to deal with and explain, and it’s not going to help him.”
Conversations with consultants from both parties who are experienced in Senate races and with officials at the marquee Democratic Senate campaigns suggest the White House is aware Obama’s presence can be as harmful as it is beneficial, though the same-sex marriage issue will probably not be decisive in the fall.
The president “can generate enormous turnout with African Americans, with young people, with Hispanics, and with single women,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who’s worked on dozens of Senate campaigns and was a top advisor to John Kerry in 2004. “These are core constituencies in the Democratic Party.”
If the president remains a potent tool for driving up turnout, he’s also become a lightning rod for conservative criticism--making him a weapon best deployed sparingly.
“If the Obama staff is sane, they will not have the president step foot in Montana or Missouri this campaign season,” said Sabato. On the other hand, “If hardcore Democrats perceive that senators are distancing themselves from a president the base loves, it’s going to cost them some votes and enthusiasm—and the turnout in the base has to be sky high for them to have a chance of winning.”
One way for McCaskill and Tester—and other similarly imperiled Democratic senators like Nelson—to keep the base fired up while making rhetorical gestures to conservative whites is targeted advertising, or what modern campaign strategists refer to as “microtargeting.”
Obama came close in Missouri last time around almost entirely because of massive support in Kansas City and St. Louis. McCaskill needs those voters—many of whom were African American—to come out this fall, even as she tries to outpoll the president among white voters statewide.
“She’s going to be running ads on local black radio stations, she’s going to have African American surrogates out here talking about her in black churches, she’s going to be doing all sorts of events in the black community, where she’s going to have the support of a local black political and cultural power structure,” Overby said. “But the way she’s going to manage it is to going to be below the radar of the conservative white voters that would irritate. There’s going to be a public campaign that’s populist and conservative and a below the radar campaign to turn out the base.”
The same goes for Nelson, who’d love to take advantage of nearly unanimous African American support for the president in cities like Jacksonville and Ft. Lauderdale while maintaining a distinct identity among suburban whites along the I-4 corridor in central Florida.
“The people of Florida will make a decision for president, and they’ll make a separate decision for U.S. Senator,” Chad Clanton, a spokesman for Nelson’s campaign, told The Daily Beast—an awkward formulation that reflects the challenge facing these at-risk Democrats.
“Most people are going to vote for the same party from the White House to the court house,” said Sabato.