When President Barack Obama flew to Miami earlier this month, Air Force One steered clear of the St. Petersburg area, where Democrat Alex Sink was in the stretch run of a tight race for an open House seat.
The president, stuck below 50 percent in national approval-rating surveys, wasn’t welcome in that part of the Sunshine State. The tale of two Floridas, where Obama returns tomorrow to raise money at the Miami-area home of former professional basketball star Alonzo Mourning, is instructive for Democratic candidates in tough midterm elections this year.
Raising money is the least -- and the most -- Obama can do for them. That’s true for both swing-district House members and the four most vulnerable Senate Democrats on the ballot in November: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Begich of Alaska, who all hail from states where Obama’s aggregate approval rating in 2013 was 43 percent or below, according to Gallup.
“Fundraising is definitely the predominant way he can help his party at this point,” said Sara Fagen, who served as director of political affairs in President George W. Bush’s White House.
While his approval rating rebounded to 48 percent in the most recent Bloomberg National Poll, Obama remains a polarizing figure in some districts and states, especially those where Democrats are in closely competitive races. Even while raising money, the president runs the risk of hurting Democratic candidates in nearby districts.
“He can’t even go to his base without potentially having a negative impact,” Fagen said. “It’s going to create a very interesting dynamic for him.”
In Sink’s case, Obama’s avoidance didn’t help enough: She lost by 2 percentage points to Republican Dave Jolly on March 11. Republicans sought to make the contest a referendum on Obama’s health-care law. Some Democrats, such as former Obama campaign adviser David Plouffe, blamed low turnout by party voters for the defeat.
Strategists in both parties said Obama’s best play is raising money from Democratic donors in big cities, where the party is strongest, for use in competitive races in other parts of the country.
“By assisting us with resources, he helps put more seats in play in 2014. It’s an effective use of his time,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the DCCC. “When the president visits a district, it’s one district. When he helps raise money for us, it helps cover multiple districts.”
Obama, 52, has shown a greater willingness to raise money for his party this year than in the last midterm election. His appearance at Mourning’s home will be his seventh fundraiser for the party’s three federal-election committees this month and follows one last night for the Democratic National Committee in Washington.
He’s committed to appearing at 18 events for the DNC and a dozen total for the DCCC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Governor’s Association in the first half of 2014.
Obama’s fundraising also addresses complaints within the party that the president and his political advisers have focused on his independent group, Organizing for Action, at the expense of the congressional and national committees, according to two Democratic officials, who asked for anonymity to talk about internal discussions.
The DNC carried $15.9 million in debts and obligations at the end of January, with only $5.7 million in the bank, according to its report to the Federal Election Commission. The White House count of 18 events for the DNC includes smaller roundtables tacked onto fundraising trips for the other party committees, which aren’t in debt. While the DSCC owed $2.5 million, it was well in the black with $15 million on hand. The DCCC, carrying no debt, had $32 million in its coffers.
By comparison, the Republican National Committee had $9.8 million on hand with no debt. The National Republican Senatorial Committee had $10 million in the bank at the end of January and the National Republican Congressional Committee had $24 million.
Obama this month has raised money in Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, New York and Boston. Administration officials said Obama also plans appearances at events on behalf of the two super-political action committees spending on House and Senate races for Democratic candidates.
Obama’s political operatives also plan to share technology, data and volunteer lists with Democratic congressional campaigns, according to the officials, who asked for anonymity to discuss political strategy.
Democrats are trying to hold their majority in the 100-member Senate, where they now control 55 votes, and stem losses in the House, where Republicans have a 233-199 edge. There are three vacant seats in the 435-member House.
The non-partisan Cook Political Report currently gives Democrats a 50-47 edge in the Senate in the November election, with three toss-up races: Democratic-held seats in Michigan and Arkansas, and the Kentucky seat of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
The House will stay in Republican control and probably will extend their majority, according to the Cook election analysis. Of the 17 races that are rated as a toss up, 13 are currently held by Democrats.
Even when Obama is not directly campaigning for a Democratic candidate, Republicans are tying the two together. After Obama attended two fundraisers for congressional candidates in New York last week, the Republican National Committee used the occasion to go after Pryor, of Arkansas.
Pryor, who’s seeking re-election in a Republican-leaning state, has tried to distance himself from Obama by opposing the president’s proposal to increase the federal minimum-wage increase proposal and saying he was “disappointed” with Obama’s state of the union address in January.
Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said Pryor’s acceptance of the money raised by Obama binds him to the president’s goals.
“What’s clear is that President Obama is banking the rest of his presidency on re-electing Mark Pryor to the Senate so he can continue to further the White House’s agenda,” Short said in a statement. “But since Pryor has been reluctant to campaign with President Obama, will he be just as reluctant to take the money the president raises in support of his re-election bid?”