Obama plays active role in Dem primaries

President Obama is playing an active role in Democratic primaries this cycle, triggering behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts to nab the coveted endorsement.

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Obama’s backing, while not sought by conservative Democrats, is a prized possession for incumbents facing serious challenges from the left.

While the president has not delved into member-versus-member matchups set up by the redistricting process, he has backed two high-profile Democrats in tough primaries: Reps. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.).

Conyers and Jackson aggressively pursued Obama’s backing. Conyers told The Hill in September that he hoped the president would endorse him.

Jackson, whose reelection bid is hampered by ethics controversies, personally asked Obama for his support at a Martin Luther King Memorial ceremony, according to nbcchicago.com.

Soon thereafter, Jackson got what he wanted. Jackson is facing former Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) in the March 20 primary.

Like Conyers, Jackson is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) who backed Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

In an interview this week with The Hill, Conyers beamed about securing the president’s backing: “I’m thrilled by the endorsement. I’m pleased. I’m happy. I’m proud. That endorsement went all over the country. People were calling me from California, New York.”

But the White House’s decision to get involved in primaries will undoubtedly spark requests from other Democrats.

Democratic lawmakers who are facing primaries from non-incumbents include Reps. Donald Payne (N.J.), Edolphus Towns (N.Y.), Charles Rangel (N.Y.), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), Lloyd Doggett (Texas), Silvestre Reyes (Texas), Richard Neal (Mass.), Pete Stark (Calif.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Tim Holden (Pa.) and Grace Napolitano (Calif.).

This list is larger than previous cycles because of redistricting and the low approval ratings of Congress. Many legislators are introducing themselves to new voters and non-incumbents see a huge opportunity to pull off an upset.

Some have pointed out that Obama is loyal to supporters of his presidential bid four years ago.

By mid-May of 2008, Rangel, Towns, Reyes, Neal and Napolitano had backed Clinton. Cohen, Johnson, Doggett and Grijalva endorsed Obama.

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

It is unlikely that Obama will pick favorites in primary contests of two incumbents, such as the upcoming battle between Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio.).

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

For example, in 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 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 then subsequently voted against Obama’s healthcare reform bill in 2010, infuriating some House Democrats. Barrow is facing a tough reelection race this fall.

Conyers, meanwhile, has had a complicated relationship with Obama. The top-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary panel has not been shy in criticizing the president on a variety of issues.

In late 2009, an exasperated Obama called Conyers to “stop demeaning him.”

The 82-year-old lawmaker said he and the president go way back: “We’re actually pretty good friends. I knew him before he was a U.S. senator, when he was in Chicago in the Illinois legislature.”

Conyers’ district was significantly redrawn and at least three formidable opponents have said they are seeking the lawmaker’s seat. The primary is in August, with the filing deadline in May. 

In his official endorsement, Obama stated that “Republicans want to continue their agenda of working to take us back to the failed policies of the past. We cannot let them succeed, and that’s why we all need to work hard to get a real ‘pro-jobs champion,’ like Congressman John Conyers, Jr. re-elected to keep Metro Detroit and the country moving in a job growth direction.”

Asked how snared the endorsement, Conyers said that his office worked out the details.

“I never called [President Obama] or talked with him about it. Our office talked to his office” and it happened, Conyers explained.

The Hill reported in 2010 that in order to attract Obama’s backing, lawmakers must ask for it.

Cohen said at the time, “You don’t ask, you don’t get.”

Johnson has also said he does not believe Obama would have endorsed him had he not asked. The Georgia Democrat easily won his 2010 primary.

“It helped me,” Johnson said last cycle. “The president is very popular in my district.”

Megan Wilson contributed to this report.