By Justin Sink - 03/09/14 06:00 AM EDT
The election is coming, the election is coming!
That’s the message coming from President Obama as he tries desperately to rouse Democrats out of a midterm election stupor that could cost his party control of the Senate — and bury his agenda once and for all.
“You've got to pay attention to the states,” he begged at a recent fundraiser for the Democratic Governors Association. Obama lamented that Democrats don’t think state-level races in the 2014 midterms are “sexy enough.”
Raising cash for Senate Democrats in Virginia, Obama said Democrats tend to get “a little sleepy” and “distracted.”
“We’re good at Senate and House elections during presidential years — it’s something about midterms," Obama said. "I don’t know what it is about us.”
And at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Boston, Obama said poor turnout could lead the party’s candidates to get “walloped.”
“It's happened before and it could happen again,” said Obama, who remembers all too well the shellacking his party took in 2010, when it lost control of the House.
In 2014, the worry is that Democrats will lose the Senate if the base doesn’t come out, and it’s an outcome that political observers and Democratic strategists say is more and more plausible.
Democrats are defending 21 of the 36 Senate seats up this fall, and election watchers widely expect the party to lose seats as they protect a fragile six-seat majority.
Democrats in red states like South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana have retired, and Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) are facing tough races.
“You just have a lot more red states than blue states in play,” said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf.
Compounding that problem is that the demographic advantages the president exploited in 2012 — an influx of young and minority voters — are unlikely to materialize this cycle.
Older, white voters less friendly to the president are far more likely to head to the polls for a midterm election.
“The difference in electorates between midterm elections and presidential elections is stunning,” said Ken Goldstein, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco.
“We don’t know what the world looks like when there’s not an African American named Barack ObamaBarack ObamaFive ways Trump will attack Clinton Armstrong Williams: Obama 'should get on his knees and pray' Obama makes move on 'smart guns' MORE on the top of the ticket,” he added.
Dye-in-the-wool liberal commentator Chris Matthews predicted that Democrats could lose as many as 10 Senate seats in the midterms.
“To the Democrats, this election, a rosy scenario is to lose five Senate seats, not six,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “They could lose 10.”
And Democrats are nervous that their candidates have been unable to exploit races where they should have an advantage. In Michigan, Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) hired a new campaign manager on Thursday, as recent polls show the congressman trailing Republican Terri Lynn Land.
Publicly, the White House is looking to project unwavering confidence heading into the midterms.
Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Thursday that the White House wasn’t even entertaining the possibility the GOP could regain the upper chamber.
“We’re not preparing for it,” Pfeiffer said at a breakfast hosted by Politico. “We’re very confident the Democrats will retain the Senate. That’s where all of our energy and our focus is.”
But Pfeiffer acknowledged that if Republicans took back the upper chamber, it would derail the president’s remaining ambitions. He predicted that the president’s judicial nominees would be blocked, and the effort to repeal ObamaCare would gain new momentum.
“It would mean a loss of the agenda that the American people care about and support,” Pfeiffer said. “The Republican Senate would block almost everything. The Republican Senate, I promise you … would spend all of its time trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”
Recent moves suggest Obama understands the consequences, and is eager to avoid the “shellacking” the party took in 2012. And his efforts to rally the base extend beyond nagging donors to stay engaged.
A White House official says that the president will look to “set the terms” of the election by focusing on his economic policy message, and repeatedly contrasting that with Republican policies designed to benefit wealthy Americans.
White House aides have been working with Democrats on votes intended to highlight that contrast. Those legislative efforts will likely include a Senate vote on hiking the minimum wage, among others.
And Obama will look to rally turnout, leaning on his voter data and political operation that helped secure his 2008 and 2012 wins.
“Midterms are about getting the base out and no one is better at that than President Obama,” the official said.
Of course, Obama and his middling approval ratings may not be an advantage in states like Louisiana and Kentucky, and some lawmakers have already said they don’t want the president to campaign for them. Instead, Obama hopes to channel fundraising dollars from progressive strongholds where he remains popular.
Through June, Obama will attend 18 DNC fundraisers, as well as an additional dozen for Democratic governors, senators, and House members. The president will also attend events for House and Senate political action committees, in a bid to inspire high-dollar donations to combat spending by wealthy conservative donors.
“President Obama is focused only on the end result,” the official said. “Our approach to the midterms is not ‘where can we campaign’ – it is ‘how can we help.’”