Democratic Senate hopefuls in red states wrestle with threat from Obama

Democrats running for Senate in red states have deployed various tactics to fend off the biggest threat to their campaigns: the unpopularity of President Obama at home.

Democrats with the toughest races have been the most vocal in criticizing Obama, who has seen his poll ratings slump since squaring off against Mitt Romney in the first debate.

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Some are following a strategy adopted by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is cruising to a victory despite representing a state where Obama is trailing Romney by as many as 21 points. Manchin established independence among voters early on by forcefully criticizing the president — sometimes verging on bashing Obama. Manchin has gone so far as to refuse to say whether he will vote for Obama.

Other Democrats have employed this strategy to varying degrees.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D), who faces an uphill battle to win his old seat in Nebraska, has slammed Obama for releasing details about the classified mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

Kerrey said he has “significant disagreements” with the president.

During a recent visit to a VFW Post 3606 in Lincoln, Neb., Kerrey said, “I think the president committed terrible mistakes” and cited the leaks from bin Laden raid, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

Robynn Tysver, a reporter for the World-Herald who covers Kerrey's race against Republican Deb Fischer, said when Kerrey mentions Obama’s name, it is often in a critical context.

“Usually he does it to criticize, to find himself someway to contrast himself with Obama,” she said.

Kerrey recently changed his stance on cap-and-trade, one of the biggest legislative priorities of Obama’s first term, and now opposes it. Kerrey said he realized the plan to restrict carbon emissions would not work after studying problems it spawned in Europe.

Romney has led Obama by 12 to 17 percentage points in recent surveys of Nebraska voters.

In Indiana, Rep. Joe Donnelly (D), who is in a dead-heat race against Richard Mourdock, recently called out Obama for slow-walking approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

“I think the president is wrong. I have been a strong supporter of that project for a long time,” he told the editorial board of the Palladium-Item in Richmond, Ind., earlier this month. “It will produce additional fuel for our region, create thousands of jobs and I think it is a national security issue.”

He contrasted himself from the president by suggesting every federal department head cut his or her budget by 10 percent. Obama has stressed raising taxes on the nation’s wealthiest families to shrink the deficit.

Mourdock regularly links Donnelly to Obama by citing Donnelly’s support for the 2010 Affordable Care Act and votes to increase the debt limit.

Unlike Manchin, Donnelly has said he will vote for Obama — though he has not committed to voting for Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for Senate majority leader.

"Joe is not concerned about party politics, as he would rather focus on what's best for Indiana. He has said repeatedly that, just as with President Bush, he will support President Obama when it makes sense for Indiana and oppose him when it doesn't,” said Elizabeth Shappell, a spokeswoman for Donnelly’s campaign.

Romney led Obama by 12 and 13 percentage points in two recent Indiana polls.

Former President Bill Clinton traveled to Indianapolis earlier this month to campaign for Donnelly but Obama has not stumped or raised money for him, according to Donnelly’s campaign.

In Montana, Sen. Jon Tester (D) tried the unusual move of tying his Republican opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), to Obama, who trails Romney by 8 to 11 percentage points in the state.

Tester linked Rehberg to Obama during a recent debate for supporting free-trade agreements favored by the president.

“Barack Obama supported all of those trade agreements. It sounds like you stood with President Obama much of the time,” he said at a debate at the Montana State University Billings campus.

A central talking point of Rehberg’s campaign is the claim that Tester votes with Obama 95 percent of the time. Tester has disputed that statistic as “crazy.”

Tester aired an ad over the summer highlighting the issues where he has disagreed with Obama, including the federal bailout of the financial sector, the federal bailout of the auto industry and the removal of gray wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act.

But Tester, who has a smoother path to election than Kerrey or Donnelly, has also defended Obama. He has praised him for “taking care of Osama bin Laden” and “doing some things in the Middle East to take care of the War on Terrorism in a big, big way.”

David Parker, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University who is working on a book about the race, said Tester has urged the EPA not to create new regulations for agricultural dust and opposed proposed administration rules restricting child labor on farms.

Parker said Republicans see Obama as one of Tester’s major vulnerabilities.

“That’s why they’re pursuing the line of argument that they are and it certainly looks like Romney will win the state. If voters go to the poll and vote straight ticket, that will hurt Tester,” he said, noting that Montana voters have a history of ticket splitting.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was one of Obama’s earliest and strongest supporters in his contest against Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

She has had a hot-and-cold public relationship with him in recent months. In June, she expressed frustration that Obama did not plan to campaign in Missouri, hoping the Obama campaign’s voter turnout operation would energize voters in St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.

A year ago, McCaskill skipped a fundraiser Obama held in St. Louis and this summer missed the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, where he was nominated for a second term.

In August, she emphasized her willingness to confront Obama during an interview with Bloomberg News, telling a reporter: “I can be stubbornly independent and hard to get along with about things I care about and I’m proud of that.”

McCaskill voted for Obama’s most controversial initiatives, including the 2009 stimulus package and the 2010 healthcare reform law.

On the campaign trail, she touts her disagreement with Obama over the Keystone XL pipeline and her efforts to slow the administration’s proposed environmental regulations.

“She hopes to run ahead of Obama in the state. That’s the critical consideration here,” said Steven S. Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center and professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.

Smith said McCaskill has to be careful not to criticize Obama harshly because she needs the Democratic base energized. He said she needs solid support from Democrats to focus on centrist voters before Election Day.

“She needs somewhere between 5 and 9 percent of the voters who are otherwise going to go for Romney,” he said. “It really is a difficult balancing act.”