Will the Chicago Teachers Strike Hurt Obama?

Jeff Haynes / Reuters-Landov

When Mitt Romney surfaced Monday night at a dinner fundraiser in the elite Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, there was the expected: an enthusiastic crowd at the mansion of a private equity chief, a huge haul ($4.2 million, said by some to be among the biggest GOP single-event takes in state history), a confident and upbeat Romney—and his attempt to pin the Chicago teachers strike to his opponent’s chest.

Mere alluding to the walkout was sure to get a strong response from the suburban Republican crowd, and it did, said one attendee. Romney focused mostly on touting his own record of educational reform in Massachusetts, but the poke at Obama was clear, echoing his public remarks made not long before he ducked into the fundraiser: “I am disappointed by the decision by the Chicago Teachers Union to turn its back on not only a city negotiating in good faith, but also the hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city’s public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education,” Romney said.

“Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet. President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his vice president last year to assure the nation’s largest teachers union that ‘you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president’s commitment to you.’ I choose to side with the parents and students depending on public schools.”

Will the attempt to link Chicago’s strike to the president work? It seems a bit of a stretch, given that the White House has stayed clear—at least publicly—of the walkout, which takes place on the watch of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff. “I think it’s our view that the sides in this dispute in Chicago can and should work it out,” is as far as Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, will go. And there’s little political incentive for the Obama campaign to get tied up in Emanuel’s troubles.

But the GOP has had some success in neighboring Wisconsin with the tough-on-public-unions stance of Gov. Scott Walker. The optics of a big strike, coming at a time when the president’s hometown is also racked by a high murder rate, are not especially helpful.

And Romney’s decision to wade into the walkout suggests the Republican’s campaign could try to do more with the issue if the strike drags on much longer. The “Chicago way of politics” has been a frequent GOP refrain, especially on Capitol Hill, and would be grist for the mill, at least for super PACs and other organizations backing the Romney effort, with the barrage of television and radio ads now far outpacing those for Obama.

“As you’ve seen over the last couple of days, he and the GOP have been trying to tie the strike to Obama,” said an attendee at the fundraising dinner, where the minimum entry fee was $2,500. “While I don’t think the strike itself will motivate voters, it does play into the ‘Chicago’ narrative and Obama’s connections here, especially to Rahm.”

“We seem to be at the stage of the race where Romney throws anything against the wall and hopes it sticks,” said Eric Adelstein, a Chicago-based national Democratic consultant. “Hitting Obama for a local teachers strike? That’s a bridge too far.”

But that’s not to say it doesn’t have campaign implications.

It was revealed last week that Emanuel would be at the forefront of trying to reenergize Obama’s own super-PAC efforts. That news raised some qualms, especially in Chicago, where the optics of his dialing for dollars while the teachers were mulling a strike were not particularly good.

He has now scaled back that super-PAC involvement, suspending it at least temporarily, and did not attend a big Democratic super-PAC meeting Monday in Chicago. According to one attendee of that session, his absence was noticeable and “disappointing.” He is, after all, one of a kind when it comes to effective exploitation of a prodigious Rolodex. In the first months of his own mayoral campaign in 2010, he raised a stunning $10.7 million before a new Illinois law kicked in on contribution limits. The distinctly bipartisan list included David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, producer Haim Saban, the late Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Ronald Perelman, and many others. He ultimately crushed his opponents in raising money and at the ballot box.

Indeed, the teachers strike may benefit the Romney campaign in one unforeseen way: sidelining one of the country’s most effective fundraisers from helping the president at a time of apparent financial need.