Obama's midterm dilemma

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President Obama will make the first public campaign appearance of the 2014 cycle Sunday in Maryland — just 16 days before voters head to the polls.

But the event — like almost every rally on the president’s schedule over the next two weeks — will be for the state’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Anthony Brown.

In the biggest game in town  — whether or not Democrats hold the Senate  — the president is virtually absent from the campaign trail to help his party hold the upper chamber.

He’s fundraised to help Senate Democrats for months. But just over two weeks out the White House seems to have come to a sober reality  — even though he has a ton to lose if Republicans take back the Senate, the president is more of a liability than an asset for Democrats locked in tough races.

While the White House has said Obama will travel in the coming days to Illinois, Michigan, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Maine, it’s only with Senate hopeful Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) — who has a healthy lead in the polls — that the president is committed to appear publicly alongside a federal candidate.

That’s despite Obama repeatedly emphasizing how crucial retaining control of the upper chamber is to the remainder of his second term.

“We really need to have the kind of Congress that is serious about the issues that matter to folks… I need everybody listening to understand this is really, really important,” Obama said in a radio interview Wednesday. “I need everybody’s help. This is the last election I’m involved in that really makes a difference.”

Even Democrats reluctantly admit his absence is probably for the best.

“It’s pretty simple,” said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. “It’s about places that his numbers are good. If there was a Senate race in places where his numbers were good, he could be more useful.”

The president’s numbers have taken a hit across the board, with a Washington Post / ABC News poll released earlier this week showing Obama with a record-low 40 percent approval rating.

Those figures are even worse in states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, and North Carolina, where Democrats need to stay competitive to maintain a chance of keeping Senate control.

Almost to reinforce that point, top Democratic candidates spent much of the week seeking distance from Obama. Kentucky’s Alison Lundergran Grimes refused to say if she voted for Obama. Sen. Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuTrump’s implosion could cost GOP in Louisiana Senate race Louisiana needs Caroline Fayard as its new senator La. Senate contender books seven-figure ad buy MORE (D-La.) rated Obama “a six to seven” out of 10 during a debate, and Sen. Kay HaganKay HaganPhoto finish predicted for Trump, Clinton in North Carolina Are Senate Republicans facing an election wipeout? Clinton's lead in NC elevates Senate race MORE (D-N.C.) called on the administration to change course on its handling of the Ebola crisis.

“The Senate seats that are up and in danger are almost all in states where the president would be unwelcome — and in some states radically so,” said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. “They’re in places where Obama just never had any leverage and certainly has no leverage left.”

Obama did win states like Iowa and Colorado — which also host competitive Senate races — in both his presidential elections. But his decision to shun the spotlight even there underscores how far he’s fallen, experts say.

“Not hustling to state like Colorado, a state he's won in the past and has a couple of close races for governor and Senate - you'd think that would be a place the president would rush to,” Jillson said. “It does suggest the president's job approval ratings and poll ratings generally slipping has cost him leverage not only in red states and purple states but also blue states.”

The White House has brushed aside suggestions that the president’s campaign schedule is a reflection of his diminished popularity or that his record was more hindrance than help.

"The president is pleased on the record that he has amassed in his six years, almost six years in office," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, citing the economic recovery and implementation of his signature health care law.

Asked why, if the president had a strong case to make, Obama had so far avoided appearing at campaign events with any Democratic Senate candidates, Earnest said Obama "obviously has got a few things on his plate these days” — an apparent reference to the Ebola outbreak and fight against jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, Obama this week scrapped two days of campaign activities — including a rally with Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy that was supposed to be his first public event — to respond to the Ebola crisis.

Democrats say it’s right for Obama to appear focused on a crisis like Ebola that is consuming so much media bandwidth.

“The worst thing you could be doing is being out doing something political,” Elmendorf said.

But privately, Democratic officials concede the president also doesn’t want to do damage to candidates in states where he could hurt.

Instead, the president has focused his time on closed-door fundraisers that help bankroll Democratic candidates without directly tying them to the president.

Obama has appeared at 28 fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee this cycle, 12 to benefit the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and eight for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Obama has appeared at another eight fundraising events for governors, joint committees and outside advocacy groups, with more planned before Election Day.

“Fundraising is the most popular thing any president can do,” Elemendorf said. “The president has a unique ability to raise large sums of money — people want to be around the president and at events with the president.”

The president and first lady have also taped at least a dozen robocalls and radio spots for Democratic candidates and get out the vote efforts.

Doing so allows candidates to avoid the “tarmac dilemma,” Jillson said.

“When the president or even the first lady visits in person, there’s that photo opportunity made for campaign ads that is likely to be more trouble than it’s worth,” Jillson said.

Instead, radio ads and recordings can be narrowly targeted to urban radio networks and area codes high in Democratic votes, without providing a visual that can be exploited by rival campaigns.

Keeping Obama focused on gubernatorial races is also a reflection of the map as much as it is his personal brand. Many vulnerable Democratic senators won six years ago on the back of the president’s election. Most Republican governors did two years later as part of the Tea Party wave. Now, dissatisfaction with both is high.

“With Democrats still bullish about the gubernatorial races it seems they are redirecting his limited time away from Capitol Hill and toward the races for the state house around the nation,” said Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer.

Moreover, state races allow Obama to operate in a way separate from the burdens of Washington that have hung like a weight around his approval numbers.

“The question really is what is the referent of the voters - when the president comes, is the voter referred by his presence to gridlock in Washington and really the lame and embarrassing performance of Washington, or is the voter referred to statewide issues?” Jillson said. “In many states you have popular governors or governors who are talking about state issues, and the president can be more productive.”