President Barack Obama is picking some temperate spots in an otherwise chilly political landscape, avoiding hostile Senate terrain during the final days of the midterm campaign in favor of tight governor races where his liabilities are less likely to stick to Democratic candidates.
With a week left before Election Day, Obama is fanning out to campaign in six states, betting that his last-minute appeals will mobilize core Democratic voters who have a history of sitting out midterm elections.
For Democrats and for the White House, it’s the strategy with the lowest risk.
Each of the states — Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Pennsylvania — went for Obama in his two presidential elections. That’s in sharp contrast to the closest Senate races, most of which are in states Obama lost and where he remains highly unpopular.
Democratic governor candidates also are better shielded from Obama’s policies than Democratic candidates for Senate, whose votes can directly advance the president’s agenda. With Obama’s approval ratings at the lowest of his presidency, Democrats in tight Senate contests have distanced themselves. One called him irrelevant; another refused to say whether she even voted for him.
His team privately bristles at some of the snubs, but Obama has abided by the candidates’ wishes, staying away while still raising millions for the party’s Senate fundraising arm.
“In Senate races, voters are looking through the lens of federal politics, and voters are getting a president with the lowest approval of his presidency right now,” said Nathan Daschle, a former executive director of the Democratic Governors’ Association.
Governors aren’t necessarily viewed through that same lens, Daschle said, and can use the president more tactically to turn out key blocs of voters, particularly African-Americans and young people.
“The reality is the president still has a great relationship with very important blocs of voters and for a lot of them he is really the only person who can turn them out,” Daschle said. “So for governors it makes a lot of sense because you can bring all the positive values of this president without the negatives.”
White House officials argue that ensuring that states are run by Democratic governors can be as important to Obama’s agenda as retaining Democratic control of the Senate.
“A lot of the important policy making is happening at the state level,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said. “You see this with minimum wage, access to health care, early childhood education.”
State action has been a crucial element of Obama’s health care law. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have so far agreed to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. But 21 states, most of them governed by Republicans, have not. Two are considering it.
Obama also has been pushing for a federal increase in the minimum wage, without success. But since the beginning of the year, 10 states and the District of Columbia have enacted minimum wage raises.
Still, Obama’s emphasis on governor races is relatively recent. His fundraising over the year has been focused on the Democratic Party and the party’s House and Senate money committees. He has held only one fundraiser for the Democratic Governors’ Association.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama’s fundraising for the national party benefits Democrats up and down the ballot, including governors. “We also anticipate that the events that the president will be hosting over the course of next week will also significantly benefit those campaigns as well,” he said.
Obama has already made campaign appearances for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown — as with the others, Obama won in those states as well.
Notably, Obama will not campaign on behalf of Democrat Martha Coakley who is running behind in her race for governor in Massachusetts, even though Obama won the state in 2012 by 23 percentage points. Obama did stump for Coakley in 2010 when she ran for Senate against Republican Scott Brown, a race she lost and one many Democrats believe she botched after being in the lead.
Obama is not headed for Florida either, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott is locked in a bitter and tight race with former Gov. Charlie Crist, who served as a Republican but is now running as a Democrat. Obama barely carried the state in 2012 and remains a polarizing figure in Florida.
Still, Republicans worry that Crist is gaining a lead on Scott and that Scott can’t benefit from anti-Obama sentiment.
“In focus group after focus group, they can’t stand the president, but they don’t think it matters in the governor’s race,” said Republican pollster Wes Anderson whose firm is advising Scott. “We would benefit from a hot Senate race on top of us in Florida.”
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