House Dems facing tough primaries find Obama 'very selective' in picking sides

Some, but not all, House Democrats who are facing challenging primaries say they plan to seek President Obama’s endorsement.

But just because lawmakers ask for the White House’s backing doesn’t mean they are going to get it. A Democratic source familiar with the situation said that the “president has been very selective and has not engaged in every race.”

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Obama has officially endorsed only two House Democrats this cycle: dean of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) and Chicago-based Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.).

In both cases, the lawmakers reaped benefits from Obama’s endorsement. Conyers, an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 presidential bid, told The Hill “that endorsement went all over the country. People were calling me from California, New York.”

Jackson, who personally asked Obama for his backing, won his primary on Tuesday, easily defeating former Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.).

Obama is not expected to get involved in member-versus-member match-ups created by redistricting. He sat on the sidelines, for example, in the high-profile showdown between Ohio Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich, which Kaptur won.

Democratic Reps. Edolphus Towns (N.Y.), Charles Rangel (N.Y.), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Richard Neal (Mass.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), Lloyd Doggett (Texas), Silvestre Reyes (Texas), Pete Stark (Calif.), Grace Napolitano (Calif.) and Tim Holden (Pa.) face difficult primaries from non-incumbents.

This list is larger than previous cycles for a variety of reasons, including redistricting and the low approval ratings of Congress. 

Not everyone on the list will seek Obama’s rubber stamp.

Towns and Neal, who endorsed Hillary Clinton over Obama in the 2008 presidential primary, told The Hill that they do not intend on asking for the president’s backing.

Others, including Cohen and Grijalva, who endorsed Obama in the Democratic presidential primary four years ago, indicated that they will seek the president’s support.

Cohen told The Hill that he is pursuing an endorsement with the president’s political team, and expressed confidence that he will secure it. 

Asked to explain the process of getting the commander in chief’s seal of approval, Cohen declined to provide details. 

Several lawmakers said they would welcome Obama’s endorsement though they haven’t placed a call to Obama or his political operatives.

Grijalva anticipated that he would eventually ask for the president’s endorsement.

“It’s not something that I want to talk to [a reporter] about until I’ve talked to [the White House],” Grijalva said.

Cohen and Grijalva have some time; the Tennessee and Arizona primaries will take place in August.

Still, the process of being granted an endorsement requires vigilance. 

Jackson told The Hill that he called the president, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), senior Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod and DNC Executive Director Patrick Gaspard. He said he called “everyone I know to remind them that there’s a race over here and I need your support.”

“The only issue with calling all these people was about follow-through. When I got to [Obama], he said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

Jackson, whose ethics controversies were attacked by Halvorson, also received the endorsement of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

Other lawmakers said they would “love” Obama’s support.

Reyes, who faces four primary challengers in late May, said he’s been so consumed with the legal challenge of the Lone Star State’s redistricting map that he wasn’t sure if his campaign had reached out to the White House.

“Let me ask [my campaign], but I’ve got [former] President Clinton endorsing me,” Reyes said in an interview with The Hill. Reyes supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Yet Obama has not used his race against Clinton as a litmus test. In 2010, the president backed Democratic incumbents in primaries who embraced Clinton’s bid, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.).

Holden, meanwhile, said he has pursued an endorsement from Vice President Biden, who was born in Pennsylvania. 

“The vice president is originally from Scranton, so we’re talking to his political people, but we don’t have any answers yet, so I don’t want to quote him on anything,” Holden said, noting that he would “love to have” the president’s endorsement as well.

But Holden said that he hasn’t called the president to ask for support at this point. Holden’s primary will take place next month. 

In past election cycles, Obama has been methodical in Democratic primaries.

During the 2010 election cycle, Obama backed Cohen and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), but not then-Reps. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) and Allen Boyd (D-Fla.). Kilpatrick lost her primary while Boyd won his, but subsequently lost his general-election bid.

In 2008, CBC members were not pleased that Obama backed a white incumbent (Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga.) facing a black primary challenge while not backing some of them.

Barrow won his race, and later voted against Obama’s healthcare reform bill, exasperating some House Democrats. Barrow is facing a tough general election race this fall.