Republicans get what they want: A midterm election about Obama

Less than 24 hours before Election Day, Republicans have what they want: a referendum on President Obama.

GOP candidates are training their closing arguments on Obama, full of confidence that voter dissatisfaction with the White House will punch their ticket to a Senate majority.

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“This is not brain surgery,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who argued “it’s obvious Obama has become an anchor” for Democrats.

Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan, who hopes to unseat Sen. Mark BegichMark BegichPerez creates advisory team for DNC transition The future of the Arctic 2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map MORE (D), in his final campaign ad is pledging to “stand up to Barack ObamaBarack ObamaGraham: Left is 'going insane' after Trump's win President travels again for meetings at Trump golf club in Va. Cotton: House 'moved a bit too fast' on healthcare MORE and federal overreach.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is flooding Georgia with ads highlighting Obama’s claim that a victory by Democrat Michelle Nunn would insure Democrats keep the Senate.

In Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) is hammering Sen. Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Five unanswered questions after Trump's upset victory Pavlich: O’Keefe a true journalist MORE (D-La.) over a comment that suggested race was a reason for Obama’s low approval ratings in the state.

In New Hampshire, where a victory by Republican Scott Brown would likely reflect a huge night for Republicans, Brown is mocking Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for voting with President Obama “99 percent of the time.”

Staffers at the Republican National Committee dressed as Democrats running from the president for Halloween.

“Basically, since Labor Day, that’s been their only message,” said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. “The vast majority of the races are in states where the president is not currently popular and never has been popular. It’s not like Arkansas was ever voting Obama.”

Strategists and analysts say the reason Republicans haven’t deviated from the theme is that so far, it’s paid dividends.

Iowa Republican Joni Ernst and her surrogates have made the president the central issue in her Senate campaign.

“Let me just say that probably the happiest guy in the country today is Jimmy Carter,” Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) quipped to a crowd in Ames on the final night of Ernst’s 99-county tour. “Because Barack Obama is making him look competent.”

The GOP effort has been aided by a series of crises, from Ebola to the Secret Service, that have played to their central theme of administrative incompetence.

The problems have made it harder for Democrats to turn to their core economic message.

“All the other issues tie into that theme,” said Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer. “That’s why midterms often go poorly — opposition parties have the advantage that they can pile on an unpopular president. Smart parties keep the message focused on that.”

The president’s successes have also been relative and occasionally difficult to distill to an electorate that is largely checked out. And the White House is the first to admit that while the economy is recovering, too few Americans are seeing that reflected in their paychecks.

“Millions of Americans don't yet feel the benefits of a growing economy where it matters most, and that's in their own lives,” the president said Friday in Rhode Island. “You know, there's still a lot of folks who are working hard, but they're having trouble making ends meet.”

Targeting the president so aggressively has also scared Democrats away from campaigning with Obama, which, in turn, has made rallying base voters more difficult — a crucial task in the midterm election, and especially in Southern states with large black populations.

President Obama’s toxicity became a self-fulfilling prophecy as more and more vulnerable Democrats sought their distance — often in embarrassing ways, like Kentucky candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes’s refusal to say whether she voted for him.

The universal focus on Obama has also left most Democratic candidates on the defensive, which heightens the degree of difficulty for proactive attacks on Republican opponents.

“The way to get above a bad national race is to figure out an issue that trumps the national malaise,” said Elmendorf.

In North Carolina, a rare bright spot for Democrats this cycle, Sen. Kay HaganKay HaganLinking repatriation to job creation Former Sen. Kay Hagan in ICU after being rushed to hospital GOP senator floats retiring over gridlock MORE (D-N.C.) has been able to frame the race as a referendum on Republican Thom Tillis’s education record.

“The smart candidates are the ones who figure out a way around it,” Elmendorf said.

Obama, for his part, has seemed disappointed by his lot this election. At a campaign appearance in Maine last week, he admitted he was “a little wistful” for the campaign trail.

“I do like campaigning. It’s fun,” he told his audience.

Still, advisers insist Obama understands the politics at play and cares more than anything about winning. And, having been boxed out of campaigning gives the president an excuse if things go south on Tuesday.

“Ultimately, those Democratic candidates will have to develop their own strategies in their states for figuring out how exactly to do that,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said this week. “And there are people running in red states that have a strong track record. … So it should be their decision. It's ultimately their campaign; it's their name that's on the ballot.”