By Alexander Bolton - 02/19/14 06:00 AM EST
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) embraced President Obama’s lofty call for hope and change when he and other Democrats gathered in Denver six years ago to celebrate the Illinois senator’s nomination.
The festive buzz has long since faded and Udall has dropped his talk of “our time” and “our moment” when discussing the president. He’s not even sure if he wants Obama back in his state after the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act left some of his constituents fuming.
Udall refused to commit to even appearing with the president, whose approval ratings have sunk to the low 40s.
“We’ll see what the schedule allows. I’m running for reelection, not the president,” he added.
It’s a striking difference from six years ago, when Udall basked in the popularity of Obama.
Udall spoke at Invesco Field on the final day of the Democratic nominating convention before tens of thousands of people who were eagerly awaiting Obama’s appearance.
“This is our time,” Udall declared triumphantly. “This is our moment to change the course of history.”
Udall’s seat is relatively safe this year, compared to a handful of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate. But Udall and other Democrats who rode high on Obama-mania are seeking to change the subject when the president’s name is uttered.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska)
The freshman used strong language when he recently discussed the possibility of Obama visiting his red-leaning home state.
Begich said he would “drag him around” to show him the real-life impact of his policies and “bang him over the heads a few times” to hammer home the message that he should open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
In 2008, when he first ran for the upper chamber, Begich was still talking about energy issues. But his tone was strikingly different; he described Obama as a potential ally after meeting with him one-on-one.
“I appreciated the opportunity to meet alone with Sen. Obama,” he said at the time after pressing Obama to support a natural-gas pipeline. “He was quite knowledgeable about Alaska issues and he understood the need for the gas line.”
Begich has noted that when he won his seat in 2008, Obama lost Alaska by nearly 22 points. In 2012, Obama lost the state by 14 points.
Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist who advised Sen. Joe Manchin (D), a centrist who ran in conservative-leaning West Virginia in 2010, the last GOP wave year, said vulnerable incumbents need to establish their independence.
“You’ve got to outline your vision for the state and for the country and where there are differences between you and the president, you should make those,” he said. “Where there are similarities, you should embrace those.
“Some of these senators, especially in these particular states, have more differences now than they did a few years ago,” he said.
Manchin illustrated his differences with Obama in the most memorable campaign ad of 2010, which featured him blasting the president’s cap-and-trade carbon emissions proposal with a hunting rifle. After getting elected, Manchin said Obama “has failed to lead.”
Vulnerable Democratic senators this year haven’t gone that far — at least, not yet.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)
Shaheen has emerged as one of the toughest critics of the faulty rollout of ObamaCare.
The former governor vented her frustrations during a private meeting of the Senate Democratic Caucus and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough in late October. She asked what the administration’s contingency plan was in case technical problems plaguing the website were not fixed. One lawmaker presenter described her as “agitated.”
Last month she made public a letter taking Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to task about the law’s impact on hospitals.
“I have heard from consumers who have been left without access to the provider with whom they had built a long-standing relationship,” she wrote.
By contrast, she sounded almost exultant when she described Obama as “our amazing Democratic nominee” in 2008.
Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who worked in the Senate as a senior adviser and scholar-in-residence, said it’s nothing personal. It’s just a matter of political survival.
“Members of Congress who are running for reelection have a preternatural sense of survival and what it takes to survive,” he said. “You might imagine that the president would be hurt and offended by people disowning him, but any seasoned politician understands that for somebody up for re-election it’s any port in a storm, and this particular port is not called Port Obama.”
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.)
Hagan stayed away from Obama when he visited North Carolina to announce the creation of a high-tech manufacturing institute. Her office said she had to stay in Washington for votes; her calculation may have included not wanting to give conservative critics any more ammo for political ads.
Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, released a Web video last month that described Hagan and Obama as best friends because of her vote for the Affordable Care Act.
Six years ago, Hagan attended campaign rallies with Obama and his wife, Michelle. Obama won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.)
Pryor backed Hillary Clinton over Obama in the 2008 presidential primary. Pressed back then on whether he would back Obama in the general election, Pryor said he would and that he was “very comfortable with him.”
Following last month’s State of the Union address, Pryor said he was “disappointed” with the president’s speech. Obama was “heavy on rhetoric, but light on specifics about how we can move our country forward,” he said. Pryor then added he has opposed Obama on gun control, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and military action in Syria.
Jasmine Sachar contributed.