For Democrats, the upcoming midterms are about Barack Obama, and they aren't.
Across the country, jittery campaign managers are putting in requests for the Clintons, for Elizabeth Warren (at least in the Northeast and Iowa) and for Michelle Obama, while President Obama is anything but a hot ticket on the trail.
It’s partly a function of a rather mundane fact: two-term presidents tend to wear out their welcomes. The president’s approval ratings are stuck in the low 40s, though that’s hardly historic. Harry Truman got down to 22 percent; LBJ and Reagan to 35 apiece, and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, bottomed out at a lowly 19 percent in Gallup before all was said and done. (Bill Clinton was the rare president who got more popular as his presidency went on thanks to a booming economy and a deeply unpopular Republican tilt at the impeachment windmill.)
Would it help Democrats to have a wildly popular president helming their national party? Sure. And there will be plenty of historical picking over of this White House's response to the GOP’s “all-out from day one” blitz against the Obama presidency. But what will be more dispositive in each midterm race are the distinct issues voters are focused on, and the quality of the state parties, candidates and campaigns, plus the overall anti-incumbent environment.
Still, Democrats face a nasty Senate map filled with states Mitt Romney carried in 2012. So they’re legitimately concerned that Republicans have nationalized the election, by serving up a fever stew of remote terrors like ISIS and Ebola, plus the diaphanous miasma of “illegals” and phantom “voter fraud,” while rallying the part of their base that never quite got over 2008 for one last swing at the president who makes their blood boil.
Republican candidates nationwide are running against opponents who all seem to be named Barack Obama. And so Democrats (exceptions including Mary Burke, who’s facing union bogeyman Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Florida’s Charlie Crist), are largely steering clear.
Except that the party’s fate on November 4 depends largely on coaxing African-American and Hispanic voters who lined up around the block in 2008 and 2012 but skipped 2010. Barack Obama is crucial to making that sale.
And so the delicate balancing act for Democrats, particularly in the South, where half of all African Americans still live, is to run one campaign for their state, and another for black voters.
By and large, that means leaving much of the “Obama messaging” to national organizations like the DNC, the DSCC and outside spending groups.
In a final flurry of rallies, conference calls and sit-downs with African-American, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific Islander and other base constituency leaders, senior Democrats, including DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and even Vice President Joe Biden, are putting on the hard sell: telling community leaders that what happens in the election will determine whether the last two years of Obama’s term are years of hope or despair.
“We need to tell people they are electing the last Congress that’s gonna be in place to make sure the president’s last two years are successful or not,” one senior Democrat said on a Tuesday conference call with minority leaders. “We need to wake up next Wednesday morning knowing we did everything we could. Let’s not say if only I’d knocked on one more door or made one more phone call things could have been different.”
At the same time, Democrats are mindful that they’ve rolled out that message before, and that the ongoing drag of economic inequality and disproportionate struggle could make rallying minority voters to Obama’s side one last time a tougher sell.
And so, the Democratic message is heavy on warnings: that Republicans will hand even more power to the CEO class should they grab Senate control, as well as reminders that voter ID and other suppressive measures target the young, the black and the brown.
“The Republicans have made it an art form to convince our people that voting doesn’t matter because government doesn’t work anyway,” Vice President Biden said on that call, according to a participant. “But for the sake of the people who are busting their necks to make a living, we’ve got to get out the vote.”
On the gubernatorial front, Democrats are eagerly citing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s blunt call at a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform event for Republicans to hold governorships to “control the mechanisms of voting” in 2016.
“Would you rather have Rick Scott in Florida overseeing the voting mechanism, or Charlie Crist?” Christie bluntly asked at that event.
It’s a question Democrats are asking their most loyal base.
Joy-Ann Reid is the host of “The Reid Report” on MSNBC.