WASHINGTON -- Former President Bill Clinton hit the campaign trail for Democrats this week, raising the question of whether one of the country’s most popular leaders will bring his political skills to North Carolina on behalf of embattled Sen. Kay Hagan.
“President Clinton remains very popular all across the country and we are thrilled that he is helping us out so far and hope he will continue to,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Spokesman Justin Barasky said.
With his Arkansas twang, folksy manner and “Bubba” nickname, Clinton has always had appeal in the south. He’s also firmly rooted – like Hagan – in his party’s centrist tradition, has enjoyed support from independents and has long been extremely popular among African Americans, who accounted for nearly a quarter of the North Carolina vote in the 2012 presidential race, according to exit polls.
Although Clinton didn’t carry North Carolina in either of his presidential victories in 1992 and 1996, and battled scandal and impeachment while in office, the 42nd president today is popular not only among Democrats, but the public at large. A Fox News Poll last April put his favorability rating at 71 percent.
He also brings a knack for down-to-earth talk and fundraising power.
“People will open their wallets for him,” said Thomas Mills, a North Carolina Democratic consultant.
Moreover, in barbecue- and college basketball-crazy North Carolina, he has some shared affections.
“I would think North Carolina would be prime turf for him,” said Marc Farinella, a Democratic strategist who managed President Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign in the Tar Heel state. “I’m not running Kay Hagan’s campaign, but if I were, I would certainly want him to be there.”
Hagan’s campaign would only say that there’s nothing scheduled for Clinton now. Aides to the former president expect him to have a busy campaign schedule in 2014, but would not discuss his future political travels.
Fighting what’s likely to be a tough battle for a second term, Hagan has said she’d welcome Obama to campaign for her, but hasn’t said anything more about that lately.
He’s the leader of her party, after all. But with the president’s approval rating in North Carolina at its all-time low – it was at 40 percent in February – and with 53 percent of voters saying they disapproved of him, Obama will probably stay out of sight.
Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, which conducted the survey, noted that few voters unhappy with the president are likely to vote for Hagan, in any case
Polls also show some of that unhappiness is over the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
Clinton, who suffered his own political blowback trying to change the health care system when he was in office, took that topic on when he spoke in Kentucky this week on behalf of family friend and Democratic Senate hopeful Alison Lundergan Grimes. She is seeking to unseat Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader and five-term incumbent.
“When you pass a big complicated bill I’m telling you, Albert Einstein could have written that bill in a closet and there would have been problems with it,” Clinton said of the continuing criticism of the health care law.
Problems with the bill were predictable, he told his Kentucky audience, but what people do “in a sane environment…when they have problems with a good objective, they fix the problems.”
The former president also said that McConnell “gets all this money from all these guys who don’t want anything to change and haven’t noticed that, adjusted for inflation, median family income in Kentucky and in America is lower today than it was the day I left office.”
Farinella said Clinton’s strength has always been his knack for framing arguments “in a very common sense fashion. But it’s always compelling."
"He is an extraordinarily talented communicator," said Farinella, who has also steered campaigns in Missouri, Florida and elsewhere. "He makes speeches in ways that sound like you’re just talking to your neighbor across the fence in the backyard.”
Republicans dismissed the idea that Clinton would help Hagan on economic issues or health care, at least not with people who don’t approve of Obama.
“No matter how many times Bill Clinton visits North Carolina, the fact is Kay Hagan has voted in lockstep with President Obama,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen.
But Clinton could stir up the party faithful, said Thomas Eamon, a political science professor at East Carolina University and the author of a new book about North Carolina politics, “The Making of a Southern Democracy.
“I also think that probably right at the moment his image, not only in the nation, but in North Carolina, is probably as good as a Democrat’s would be,” he added.
Mills, the Democratic consultant, recalled the highly-acclaimed nomination speech that Clinton gave for Obama at the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte. The former president, he said, “can make the case for Democrats as well or better than any national leader the party has.”
In a another signal that Clinton he could be playing a big part in the mid-term elections, he sent a video and email this week to Democratic supporters announcing a program to encourage more people to vote, simplify the process and ensure that all votes are counted.
“There is no greater threat to the core values of our democracy than restrictions to the fundamental right to vote,” Clinton says in the video. “As that threat grows, it’s up to all of us to fight back.”
The Democrats hope to increase voting by setting up offices in the field, talking to election officials about how they interpret voting laws, and helping pass laws that expand voting opportunities, said Democratic National Committee Press Secretary Michael Czin.
North Carolina, as well South Carolina, Texas and Missouri, are among nearly three dozen states that have either passed or introduced restrictive voting laws. Passed last summer, the North Carolina law, eliminated same-day voter registration during the early voting period, cut the early voting period by seven days and created a photo identification requirement.