Democratic Lawmakers Keep Obama at Distance in Campaigns

Obama Kept at Arm's Length by Democrats in Congress
US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. listens while US President Barack Obama speaks from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Democratic Representative Larry Kissell’s district is within 10 miles of the Charlotte, North Carolina, arena where the Democratic National Convention will be held starting Sept. 4. Kissell isn’t planning to attend.

The lawmaker is among a growing number of Democrats in both chambers of Congress who are keeping their distance from President Barack Obama as they seek re-election this year in Republican territory.

Kissell, who hasn’t endorsed Obama’s re-election, voted with Republicans on July 11 to repeal Obama’s 2010 health care law and on June 28 to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. He declined to comment specifically on his policy differences with Obama. Other Democrats in states or districts where the president’s poll numbers are low are emphasizing that they aren’t in lock-step with him on such policy areas as energy, taxation and the environment.

Kissell’s North Carolina district, as redrawn by the Republican-controlled state legislature, has “an oversupply of those people who are just unalterably opposed to Obama,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That means Kissell has “got to make the race much more of a local race than a national race” to win, Guillory said.

Control of Senate

Democrats’ efforts to retain control of the Senate and gain seats in the House this November may hinge on their success in races in Republican-friendly states including North Carolina, North Dakota, Missouri and West Virginia, where Republicans have been working to hurt their rivals by tying them to Obama’s policies.

“The president simply isn’t going to be popular everywhere and, to some extent, that’s true under any administration,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “The interests of the president may diverge from the interests of his party’s members of Congress.”

These Democratic candidates, for the most part, are keeping a polite distance from Obama by emphasizing differences on policy, skipping the nominating convention or not endorsing his bid for a second term. Few congressional aspirants have gone as far as North Dakota Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp by overtly criticizing his presidency.

‘Failed’ the Test

Heitkamp, a former state attorney general who faces a strong challenge from Republican Representative Rick Berg, told the Associated Press in May that Obama “failed in the one test America had for him, which was to unite the country.” She has said Obama hasn’t done enough for the U.S. energy industry and called on the president to expedite a Canadian oil pipeline.

Heitkamp spokesman Brandon Lorenz confirmed the comments and said the candidate “believes in putting North Dakota’s priorities before partisan politics.”

In North Dakota, a state that Obama lost four years ago by 8.6 percentage points, Republicans are trying to make Heitkamp’s past support for Obama’s health care law a liability, blanketing the state with more than 2,000 television ads.

“Some states -- I could name names but I won’t -- the president might not carry the state, and the Democratic candidate for Senate may disagree with the president more than other states,” said Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat.

Not Concerned

The president and his staff aren’t concerned that Obama’s support among congressional Democrats running in Republican-leaning areas has diminished, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said July 30.

“This is something that happens, I think, every four years on both sides,” Earnest said.

Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, is taking steps to separate himself from Obama’s policies. He’s running in a state where one in four voters in the May 8 Democratic primary chose Keith Judd, an incarcerated felon, over Obama.

Asked in a Capitol Hill hallway whether he would vote for Obama in November, Manchin wouldn’t answer. He told the Charleston Daily Mail in April that he hasn’t spoken to Obama since he was elected to the Senate in November 2010.

Manchin that year ran a campaign ad in which he promised to “take on” the Obama administration and was shown using a rifle to shoot through a mock copy of Democratic legislation capping carbon emissions. Manchin and House Democrats from West Virgina, which favored Republican presidential candidate John McCain by 13.1 percentage points in 2008, also are skipping the Democratic convention.

Republican Candidates

Some Republicans in contests that are expected to be close also are skipping their party’s nominating convention in Tampa starting Aug. 27. They include Senate candidates George Allen in Virginia, Heather Wilson in New Mexico and Linda Lingle in Hawaii. Former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney also aren’t attending.

In his two-year Senate career, Manchin has forged a record as a party outlier. He opposed Obama and congressional Democrats’ push to extend a payroll tax cut for workers, and last month said he would oppose any effort to continue the tax break into 2013. Manchin also was the only Democrat to vote July 12 against moving forward an Obama-backed Democratic proposal to offer tax breaks for hiring and capital investment.

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill’s decision not to attend the Democratic convention is notable because she was one of the first senators to publicly support Obama in his 2008 primary race against then-Senator Hillary Clinton.

‘By His Side’

A national campaign co-chair four years ago, McCaskill won a speaking role at the Denver convention that nominated Obama, where she boasted that she’s “seen Barack Obama in the Senate” and “been by his side on the campaign trail.”

McCaskill’s campaign said she doesn’t attend national political conventions when she is running that year. She said in an interview that a decision by a lawmaker of either party to skip the convention isn’t “any indication of anything other than the fact that you’re in a hard race and you feel like you need to be campaigning.”

“The only people who are criticizing me for not going to the convention are Republican operatives,” she said. “They want me away from the state. They know when I am at home, I am campaigning.”

Republicans, who need to net four seats to win control of the Senate, are working to defeat McCaskill by playing up her past strong support of Obama, whose approval ratings in Missouri have been consistently low.

Missouri Poll

A Mason-Dixon poll conducted July 23-25 showed McCaskill trailing three of her potential Republican opponents, who will face off in an Aug. 7 primary.

Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group that former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove helped create, has been airing a television ad in Missouri claiming that McCaskill “has voted with President Obama 90 percent of the time” including for the 2010 health care overhaul.

“We have incumbents who are trying to act like political independents when, in fact, they voted lock, stock and barrel for the administration’s unpopular policies,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who leads Senate Republicans’ campaign efforts, said in an interview.

McCaskill was among several Democratic lawmakers who didn’t back Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage May 9. At the time, McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard told the Springfield News-Leader that while McCaskill opposes discrimination against homosexuals, she thinks states should “take the lead in determining marriage equality.”

Different Views

In an interview yesterday, McCaskill said she doesn’t shy away from expressing views that differ from Obama’s.

“I can be stubbornly independent and hard to get along with about things I care about, and I am proud of that,” she said.

Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat elected in 1996 when former President Bill Clinton was on the ballot, said moderate Democrats sometimes need to draw contrasts with the president.

“It’s very important to try, but it’s usually not that difficult,” Landrieu said. “For those of us who are more conservative or moderate, it comes naturally.”

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