October 29, 2014 White House officials are preemptively spinning a midterm defeat, and they’re using their own fantasies to do it. They’re starting to blame candidates for not supporting President Obama enough. As a top White House official told The Washington Post‘s Karen Tumulty, “He doesn’t think they have any reason to run away from him. He thinks there is a strong message there.”
This is pure delusion: Obama is the main reason Republicans are well-positioned to win control of the upper chamber next Tuesday. And Democrats’ biggest strategic mistake in this election is that most candidates didn’t run away far and fast enough. Given the president’s rock-bottom approval numbers in the many Republican-friendly Senate states that Democrats needed to win—as well as the reality of a worsening political environment for the party as early as last winter—that distance was a downright necessity. But a host of Senate candidates failed to create it, and the party is likely to pay the price in Senate seats.
Some candidates bought the White House’s view that the president’s problems were temporary, or only a problem in the most conservative of states. Others naively thought they could pivot away from the president’s problems in hope of individualizing the races and focusing on their challengers’ vulnerabilities. Several understood that moving to the center could risk alienating a base that they needed to turn out, given the party’s much-vaunted Bannock Street ground game. But as the candidates win only weak support from outside the most committed Democrats, those assumptions deserve to be reevaluated. Now, more than ever, it’s clear that individual Democrats could use some clear brand separation from President Obama.
In the traditional swing states such as Colorado and New Hampshire, Sens. Mark Udall and Jeanne Shaheen didn’t think they’d have to break with Obama all that much. After all, they presumed, the Republican Party’s brand was in even worse shape than the president’s.
And in the conservative states held by Democrats, senators tried to have it both ways without telegraphing their differences starkly enough. Simply calling for unspecified fixes to a deeply unpopular health care law, for example, wasn’t sufficient to keep enough disaffected white voters on their side. And while most red-state Democrats tweaked the president for delaying construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, those in the Senate were telegraphing their impotence by not being able to persuade the president otherwise.
In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes was a fresh face who wasn’t burdened by controversial votes in Congress. She benefited by running against Mitch McConnell, whose personal ratings were weak and who faced problems on his right flank, spending all spring fighting off a tea-party primary challenger. But Grimes prioritized appealing to the Democrats’ deep-pocketed donor class above winning over disaffected up-for-grabs voters in her home state. It would have been a defensible strategy, if the political environment in 2014 was more favorable for Democrats. After all, she was one of the Democrats’ most successful fundraisers, and she became a national party star overnight. But her attempts to appease both the party base and more-conservative voters in her state has become painfully awkward. On coal, an issue that’s a political no-brainer in Kentucky, Grimes spent far too much time trying to forge a middle ground between the base and her constituents. McConnell actually lost eastern Kentucky’s coal country to a wealthy Democratic businessman in 2008; that same region could comprise his margin of victory in 2014.
In Arkansas, Pryor seemed content to rely on his strong family name and sharp attacks against Rep. Tom Cotton’s very conservative voting record as a substitute for actively challenging the president. Obama’s approval ratings are as poor in Arkansas as anywhere in the country. And Pryor began the race ahead, hoping to translate his personal likability into votes. But he’s been caught in his own pretzels when asked about the president’s performance on key issues, most recently fumbling a basic question on how he’d grade Obama’s handling of the Ebola crisis.
Even in bellwether Colorado, Udall’s playbook of attacking Gardner almost exclusively on abortion rights and contraception has demonstrated its limits. He boasted a bipartisan brand that he forged in his first Senate race in 2008, but he’s squandered it with a deeply negative campaign. He entered the race with the ability to make a persuasive case over his independence: He’s run to the president’s left on criticizing NSA surveillance and immigration reform. If he was more assertive on energy issues—unequivocally backing the Keystone pipeline and being more outspoken in support of fracking—he could’ve played more to the center-right voters, as well.
But Udall’s reluctance to distance himself from Obama hasn’t helped in a state where the president’s approval numbers have cratered since his last election. By focusing on wedge issues, the freshman senator has cocooned himself as the candidate of the liberal base, and given himself little credibility to distance himself from the president. When Udall said that the last person the White House “want[s] to see coming is me” at a September debate, he was received with laughter. But if he had played his cards differently, it didn’t have to be that way.
To be sure, in a nationalized election, even those who break from an unpopular president often fall victim to his political problems. The biggest victims in the 2010 wave election were House Democrats in conservative districts, most of whom voted against the president’s health care law. Their opposition did little to help them. But in Senate races, where candidates’ personal brands play a bigger role, there’s more opportunity to create space. Manchin, after all, comfortably prevailed in West Virginia in 2010 after (literally) shooting the president’s cap-and-trade legislation. Rep. John Barrow of Georgia may survive yet another tough election, thanks to a savvy ad campaign branding himself as a uniquely conservative Democrat. But few of the red-state Democrats on the ballot this year have even attempted the Manchin/Barrow approach. (Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska comes closest, and he looks to be in the best shape of the bunch.)
This year’s midterms are shaping up to be a referendum on President Obama’s management, giving anxious voters an opportunity to express their frustration about everything from the president’s handling of health care, growing terrorism threats, an Ebola scare, and a broken immigration system, among others. It’s far from an election about nothing. Democrats should have recognized that the president was falling out of favor with the public and inoculated themselves a long time ago. Instead, many bought the White House’s spin, and are at risk of going down with a sinking ship.