Vulnerable Democrats are reaching out to first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden and other surrogates this fall instead of President Obama, whose low approval ratings make him a cancer for many campaigns.
The party may face flagging enthusiasm from the base, but the president, the figure typically best able to counteract that, has lost most of his luster and may do more harm than good this fall.
“It would certainly be better if his numbers were stronger in those states,” he said.
But Thornell and others touted the deep bench of Democratic stars that the party has to make up for Obama’s pitfalls this cycle.
“There is not a Republican that’s even in the same league as the top surrogates in the Democratic Party, in terms of fundraising powers, creating positive headlines, turning out the base,” he argued.
First lady Michelle Obama is already hitting the trail, and made one of her first midterm campaign stops in Louisiana on Saturday to meet with veterans’ wives alongside Sen. Mary Landrieu (D). A new poll out this week gave Landrieu her lowest approval rating yet, just six points ahead of President Obama's 64 percent disapproval rating.
But the first lady is much more popular than her husband, posting a 66 percent national approval rating in March of this year.
Vice President Biden is expected to be useful as well this cycle. Even though he has much of the same baggage as the president, but is perhaps more likeable and personable than Obama.
In those red states, Democratic strategists also see a role for some of the more centrist senators, like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), both of whom won tough campaigns last cycle in red states that mirror some of the party’s top races this cycle.
Heitkamp recently campaigned with West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who’s facing a fierce campaign for Senate similar to the one that Heitkamp won last cycle.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), another more pragmatic female senator, will also be on the campaign trail for Democrats this cycle and notably helped out in Kentucky, where the Agriculture Committee chairwoman touted Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes’ commitment to farmers and slammed Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the issue.
And of course, up and down the ballot, Democratic candidates and incumbents are clamoring for the party’s uber-surrogates: Bill and Hillary Clinton, almost universally well-liked within the party and capable not only of exciting the base but of convincing swing voters as well.
Bill Clinton has already campaigned in a Florida House special election and Kentucky’s Senate race. Hillary is expected to hit the trail as well, her potency enhanced all the more by the likelihood of a presidential run in two years.
But the issue for Democrats isn’t just that Obama could be a problem in the red states; it’s also the fact that he doesn’t have the same effect on the base he once did.
Progressives have expressed frustration in recent months over what they see as too much compromise from the president. And as Chris Kofinis, Manchin’s former chief of staff, pointed out, after nearly six years of Obama pontificating on the trail, his stump speeches may not pack the same punch.
“A president’s ability to influence voters and turn the base out has diminishing returns in the second term, because they’ve heard it. They’ve heard it so many times, it can become stale,” said Kofinis.
That’s where rising progressive stars like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) come in. Booker is expected to help raise money for candidates and may hit the campaign trail for some as well. Warren, a hero of the left, has already been on the road and has a fundraiser planned for Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a newly-minted Republican target, later this month.
Other surrogates may be helpful in appealing to specific subsets of the Democratic base that are in danger of not turning out this November.
One national party strategist said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards could be out on the trail for female candidates, pushing the party’s message on the GOP’s “War on Women” to single female voters. Another noted San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (D) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) could be useful for House candidates and lawmakers, making their pitch to Hispanic and African American voters, respectively.
Still, Obama won’t entirely disappear this cycle.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), one of those red-state Democrats running in a state where Obama’s more of a bane than a boon to his campaign, actually appeared alongside him this week to survey tornado damage in the state. But the backdrop of the tragedy was hardly a campaign event, and it’s unlikely the president would be back in a political capacity for him again.
Where the president’s appearance can emphasize the advantage of a senator’s seniority, he may be greeted more warmly.
Obama’s already committed to raise money for each of the Democratic campaign committees and just completed a fundraising swing for them through California this week. And one national strategist involved in House races said he could be helpful in some of the party’s top congressional contests.
"We do want Obama out there. A lot of our races are in places like New York and Illinois and California, where his numbers are stronger and he helps with turnout,” the strategist said.
But Democratic operatives cautioned that surrogates can only go so far, and candidates would do well not to lean too heavily on them, even with a daunting political climate and turnout woes dogging their party this cycle.
“Here’s the cold reality: Surrogates aren’t going to win you the election. You are,” Kofinis said. “At the end of the day, you’re either capable of painting a contrast with your opponent, or you’re not.”