LEXINGTON, Ky. — Alison Lundergan Grimes has campaigned with former president Bill Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren by her side. But the Democratic candidate for US Senate has not appeared with the leader of her own party, President Obama.
Instead, it almost seems as if Grimes is running against the president. She has run a recent television ad declaring “I’m not Barack Obama” as she shoots clay pigeons from the sky. Calling him out by name, she tells voters in her conservative state that “I disagree with him on guns, coal, and the EPA.”
Obama, whose celebrity once filled large arenas, has not appeared with a single House or Senate candidate at a campaign rally this year, according to a database maintained by CBS News.
Perhaps nowhere has the Obama-at-a-distance policy been on display as starkly as in Kentucky, where Grimes is trying to unseat the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell.
On Thursday night, McConnell seemed ebullient as he appeared at a news conference with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the failed Republican 2012 candidate who has appeared with GOP candidates across the country, and tried to make the campaign a referendum on Obama.
“This race here in Kentucky and the races across the country are about Barack Obama’s agenda,” McConnell said at a Lexington horse farm.
Behind closed doors, Obama has been a key fund-raiser for his party, holding at least 10 private events for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this year alone, as well as events for individual candidates and party committees, including a closed Illinois fund-raiser Thursday.
But on the campaign stage, Obama seems persona non grata. It is not unusual for candidates to try to distance themselves from an unpopular president or make him the issue. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton attended just a handful of public campaign events at this stage in their presidencies, with Bush ramping things up in the final weeks of his sixth year in office.
But the lengths to which Democratic candidates are going this year to avoid association with Obama has become one of the most striking themes of the 2014 elections. Grimes’s ad may be the bluntest presidential rejection, but she is hardly alone.
Democrats in key House races from Texas to Florida, and in close Senate races in Louisiana, Alaska, Arkansas, and West Virginia, have taken aim at the president, his policies, or both in ads.
Representative Pete Gallego, a Texas Democrat, ran an ad criticizing the GOP for the shutdown in which he also bragged that “I told the president ‘no’ to special treatment for Congress when he tried to exempt them from Obamacare.”
Romney narrowly carried Gallego’s district, a large swath of West Texas in which voters have turned out the incumbent three of the past four elections.
“Obama’s very unpopular. I don’t need a poll to tell me that,” Gallego said in an interview, adding that voters are disgusted with leaders of both political parties, and carried similar ill will toward Bush at the end of his tenure.
The most recent national Gallup Poll found only 42 percent of respondents approve of Obama’s performance. But it’s far lower in many of the states where Democrats and Republicans are fighting the hardest for control of the Senate. In Kentucky, just 31 percent of voters approve of Obama’s job performance, according to a September NBC News/Marist poll.
Obama’s low rating has been a major obstacle in Grimes’s effort to unseat McConnell, who is also unpopular with his home-state voters.
Patsy Peters, a retired factory worker from Lexington and a Republican who has previously crossed party lines, said in an interview at a local Walmart, “Grimes to me is just like Obama, and we don’t need her in there.”
E.W. Evans, a 91-year-old Democrat, concedes Obama is unpopular, but asserts it’s based on “a lot of prejudice because he’s black.”
Regardless of the reasons, McConnell has been pounding Grimes with comparisons to Obama, including one advertisement this week that portrayed both politicians as inexperienced promise-breakers.
Grimes and other Democrats who are trying to keep their races focused locally were dealt a new obstacle Thursday, when Obama delivered a speech in Chicago on his economic agenda.
“I’m not on the ballot this fall,” Obama said. “But make no mistake. These policies are on the ballot, every single one of them.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” he said Thursday night. (Former Massachusetts US senator Scott Brown, seeking a Senate seat in New Hampshire, also saw an opening, making a video Friday featuring Obama’s remarks.)
Grimes, after running the ad distancing herself from Obama, Wednesday began running a new commercial in which Bill Clinton endorses her. But her ties to Obama continue to trail her. During a news conference after a campaign rally Thursday afternoon, Grimes ignored a question asked three times about whether she voted for Obama in 2012. She would not say whether she regretted serving as a delegate for Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
“My record speaks for itself,” said Grimes, who backed Hillary Clinton in 2008. “I’m a Clinton Democrat through and through, and proud to be working in this race to help put jobs back here into Kentucky and actually get Kentucky working again.”
Other Democrats in tough races started distancing themselves from Obama in advertisements months ago. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana staked her independence in an April ad.
“The administration’s policies are simply wrong when it comes to oil and gas production in this nation,” Landrieu says in the ad. “We produce the oil and gas. That’s the message we told to the president.”
Landrieu campaigned last week with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who ran a provocative ad in 2010 in which he shot a gun and promised to take on “this administration to get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets.”
Other Democrats, including Grimes, have campaigned with Warren, who has held public events in nine states, according to her office. Obama’s wife, Michelle, in Boston with Attorney General Martha Coakley’s campaign for governor Friday, has been a more popular draw than her husband, though she too has so far avoided some of the battleground states where the undertow of the Obama name is especially strong.
Obama has never been popular in Louisiana and Kentucky, losing in both 2008 and 2012.
“Democrats who win in ‘red’ states . . . have to put their state interests first and there are occasions where they disagree with the national party, and that’s always been the case,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who recruited many of the candidates six years ago who are now facing tough reelections.
The Democratic candidate for West Virginia’s second US Senate seat, Natalie Tennant, ran an ad in which she pretended to shut off the lights in the White House to “make sure President Obama gets the message” about coal, while Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, ran an ad opposing Obama’s gun control proposal. Senator Mark Begich of Alaska vowed in a Washington Post interview to be a “thorn” in Obama’s backside.
But even some in regions that had previously supported the president have lost faith. Earlier this year, the House Majority PAC, a Democratic group, placed an ad on behalf of a South Florida Democrat, Representative Joe Garcia, bragging that he “took the White House to task” for the poor rollout of the health care law.
Obama won Florida twice and carried the House district by about 7 percentage points.
Garcia insists he is not running from Obama, but he then adds that he fought him on Medicare reimbursements and has taken other positions that are at odds with his agenda.
“To try to hide from a 6’2” president of the United States is not a good policy,” Garcia said. “What you’re trying to establish is that you’re a local guy. You do what’s right for the district.”
Polling data from Garcia’s opponent, Republican Carlos Curbelo, suggests that Obama’s job approval in the district has dropped significantly in the past 16 months, from 60 percent to 43 percent.
“The incumbent will try to run and hide,” Curbelo said. “The president’s policies are clearly unpopular and Mr. Garcia has defended almost all of them.”