In West Virginia Senate candidate Natalie Tennant’s latest ad, she hits a switch, plunges the White House into darkness, and promises, “I’ll make sure President Obama gets the message” on the importance of the West Virginia coal industry to the rest to the rest of the country.
But what Tennant does not mention is that she is a Democrat running to replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a detail probably best left unsaid in a state where President Obama’s latest approval rating was just 25 percent, the second-lowest of any state in the country.
Unfortunately for Democrats, Tennant’s challenge isn’t unique, or even unusual, in the 2014 midterm elections. Of the 10 states where Obama has his lowest approval ratings in the nation, Democrats are defending Senate seats in five, including South Dakota, Montana, Alaska, and Arkansas. Plenty more states where Obama’s ratings hover between 30 percent and 40 percent, like Colorado and Louisiana, feature incumbents defending seats, while in the two states where Democrats most hope to pick up seats, Kentucky and Georgia, Obama’s approval ratings are 35 percent and 45 percent, respectively.
It’s an association that’s giving red state Democrats more than a little heartburn as they proactively work to distance themselves from the White House without also alienating base Democratic voters they’ll need in November or losing out on Obama’s still powerful fundraising apparatus.
The balance can be awkward, to say the least. Take Alaska, where Obama’s approval rating is 35 percent and incumbent Sen. Mark Begich recently told The Washington Post that his approach to the president is to be a thorn in Obama’s backside: “There’s times when I’m a total thorn, you know, and he doesn’t appreciate it.”
Far to the South in Louisiana, where Obama’s numbers bump up just to 40 percent, one of Sen. Mary Landrieu’s first ads featured footage of the senator calling out the White House as “simply wrong” on oil and gas production, the state’s most important industry.
In Kentucky, the Democrat Allison Lundergan Grimes released a radio ad hammering Obama for his policy on coal, her state’s leading industry. “Your EPA is targeting Kentucky coal with pie-in-the-sky regulations,” she says in a message to the president. “You have no idea how this affects Kentucky.”
Republicans know that the Obama brand isn’t selling in red states, so they’re trying to make the most out of the uneven playing field.
“The reality of the map is that when Barack Obama gets a cold nationally, he gets pneumonia in red states,” said Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The NRSC will “absolutely” follow a strategy to nationalize Senate contests by tying the president to the incumbent Democratic senators in states where he is least popular, a task Dayspring said has been made easier by what he called the Democratically controlled Senate’s short list of accomplishments.
“In elections where Democrats are trying to de-nationalize it, each of these candidates are looking for pothole issues they can take credit for,” Dayspring said. Without earmarks or new legislation with a local focus to take credit for, “The crowning achievements have been the pieces of legislation that President Obama championed, so it’s very difficult for these candidates to go home and differentiate themselves.”
Although most of the NRSC’s firepower will come in ads in the fall, other outside Republican groups are already busy trying to make Democrats’ names synonymous with the president’s. In Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor is fending off a challenge from Rep. Tom Cotton, American Crossroads has plowed more than $500,000 into ads portraying the senator and the president as essentially the same person. In an ad called “Spelling Bee,” a young child spells “Pryor” as “O-B-A-M-A,” to which the judge says, “Close enough.”
In Georgia, the conservative super PAC Ending Spending is up with an ad against Michelle Nunn that opens with a photograph of Nunn with Obama under a bold red “WHY?”
To answer those Obama ads and others like it, Democrats will need plenty of money to respond in kind, and ironically, the man who can most help in that effort is the president himself, of late the Democrats’ most prolific and effective fundraiser.
So far this cycle, Obama has headlined 11 events for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, while Vice President Joe Biden has hosted five and first lady Michelle Obama has been the top draw for two. The president also has added his weight to the Senate Majority Fund PAC, which has run ads against Cotton in Arkansas, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, and other red states where Democrats are fending off Republican challengers.
Justin Barasky, press secretary for the DSCC, says efforts like Tennant’s in West Virginia and Landrieu’s in Louisiana aren’t necessarily a reflection on the president.
“It’s not about distancing themselves from the White House,” Barasky says. “These are independent senators showing that they will always put their states first, and that’s been true whether President Bush was in the White House or President Obama was in the White House.”
Some Democrats are having more success than others in their I-never-met-the-guy campaigns. Those most able to shed the Obama label so far have been the ones lucky enough to have famous last names with long histories in their states, brands strong enough to overcome Republicans’ liberal-by-association campaigns.
Luckily for Democrats, that’s an unusually long list this year, where names like Begich, Landrieu, Pryor, Udall in Colorado, Nunn in Georgia, and Lundergan in Kentucky have kept their candidates in safe territory or within striking distance. But others, like Tennant in West Virginia, are being forced to rely on attention-grabbing ads that shut the lights off in the White House in hopes that voters won’t notice the candidate in the ad is in the same party as the president in the dark.