By Emily Goodin - 11/26/13 06:00 AM EST
Michelle Obama — not the president — is the White House occupant that Democrats in tough races may want standing by their side.
The first lady raised at least $31 million for her husband’s reelection effort last year and, unlike the 2010 midterms, has stepped up to the plate this election cycle by holding fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee and several Senate candidates.
While polls show her husband’s image with the public has been battered by the disastrous rollout of the healthcare exchanges, the first lady is among the most popular politicians in the country.
The president’s poor approval rating could be an anchor for vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbents in Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina who may decide control of the Senate.
His wife, in contrast, could lift up those Democrats, not only with her fundraising prowess but by bringing out women and African-American voters in 2014.
“A lot of Southern Democrats, especially white South Democrats, are running away from the president right now and she would be a safer bet for white, Southern, Democratic politicians to have at their side,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University who specializes in first ladies.
“She can still attract that very important black vote.”
One lawmaker who benefited from her attention was Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who won a June special election in the deep-blue state.
Obama raised a little more than $700,000 for his campaign during a May visit.
“She is magical, and when she’s in a room, it lights up. And then when she speaks people are enthralled,” Markey told The Hill. “She was a great help to me.”
Not every Democratic candidate wants to be seen cozying up to the first lady, despite her high approval ratings.
In some states, the Obama White House is unpopular enough that even the first lady can’t overcome it.
After Michelle Obama raised funds for Senate Democratic candidates including West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D), a spokesman for Tenant sought to distance her candidate from the first lady, who mentioned gun control and other issues at the New York City event.
Tennant attended the event, but Tennant spokeswoman Lisa Duvall said it did not represent an endorsement.
The East Wing, which is protective of Obama’s image, downplays her political work, preferring to portray her as the mom in chief.
Obama’s office did not respond to requests for information about the first lady’s fundraising schedule or the amount she has raised for Democrats. It prefers to keep the focus on her work with children through the Let’s Move program and with military families through Joining Forces.
Analysis by The Hill found the first lady raised at least $31 million for her husband’s reelection.
Obama brought in $1 million a week when she hit the fundraising circuit ahead of Election Day, according to Double Down, a book on the 2012 race by political journalists Mark Halperin and John Heileman. And she attended fundraisers for at least 31 weeks throughout 2011 and 2012, according to media reports and travel records.
But her actual fundraising total is probably higher. The first lady did several joint fundraisers with the president — the dinners with Barack and Michelle were especially popular — as well as digital efforts.
Obama signed her name to multiple email appeals during the 2012 race. Overall, the Obama campaign raised $504 million from its digital drive, according to Time magazine.
In contrast, Laura Bush raised $15 million in 2004 for her husband’s reelection effort.
Like Michelle Obama, Laura Bush also hit the road for Republican candidates in 2006 when her husband was unpopular in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the war on terror.
“Demand was pretty high,” for Laura Bush in 2006, recalled Anita McBride, her chief of staff at the time.
“For the political folks who have to map out where and when to send someone, the first lady is at the top of the list,” said McBride, who works for the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
Obama herself seems to have come to peace with her role as party rainmaker.
As she told the crowd in New York last week: “I hate doing this. I love you all, but I hate asking you guys for stuff — and I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
Patrick Mortiere contributed