There’s nothing quite like the electric atmosphere in the final week of a competitive statewide political campaign. In those last few days, US Senate races — particularly those that have attracted national attention — reach levels of intensity and around-the-clock adrenaline-fueled activity that are unique in public life. It brings to mind a line from the comedian Steven Wright about tipping back in your chair too far and catching yourself at the last second. “I feel like that all the time,” he said. That’s how the last week of a Senate campaign feels, too.
Most voters assume that, this close to the finish line, candidates can’t wait for it all to end. In fact, that’s rarely the case. Sure, there is plenty of anticipation for the closure of election day, but the best politicians thrive in the home stretch. At that point, all the decisions about schedules, ad buys, and election day strategy have been made. There’s a welcome feeling of liberation that sets in when you have nothing left to do but campaign. As Senator Lamar Alexander observed, if you don’t enjoy talking to someone about their grandchildren, then you shouldn’t be running for office.
If you’re not having fun in those critical last days, you are probably losing or afraid of losing. Ironically, preoccupation with the outcome should be the last thing on the candidate’s mind. Obviously, no one wants to lose. Few expect to lose. But losing is elemental to the electoral process. Just a handful of US presidents reached the Oval Office without at least one crushing defeat along the way. The time to worry about not winning was when you decided to enter the race in the first place.
Most Democratic congressional candidates have had a difficult time having fun lately. In fact, they’ve had a pretty tough year — incumbent or challenger, strong or weak, known or unknown. Running against the headwind of a president with low approval ratings challenges even the most agile politician. For the past six months, like so many characters in a Harry Potter novel, Democrats have dared not speak his name. They have struggled mightily to magnify even the smallest area of disagreement with President Obama, and insisted to anyone who would listen that they were independent thinkers.
And then, speaking on Al Sharpton’s radio program last Monday, Obama said this: “These are all folks who vote with me; they have supported my agenda in Congress.”
It’s bad enough that the statement — or, more appropriately, the indictment — came along just as the campaigns are fighting to generate some momentum in the election’s final week. And that it completely contradicts any claims they might make about “bipartisanship.” What makes Democrats really angry, however, is that Obama had the nerve to blurt out the truth.
In 2013, the Congressional Quarterly news service reviewed 108 Senate votes where Obama took a position. The Democratic incumbents in three crucial and competitive races — Senators Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Udall of Colorado, and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire — voted with Obama 97, 99, and 99 percent of the time. It’s hard to run away from numbers like that, and even harder when the president is publicly bragging about them.
In the wake of the gaffe, one Democratic Senate aide declared that “the ineptitude of the White House political operation has sunk from annoying to embarrassing.” Frustrating? Yes. But the statement captures one of Obama’s greatest flaws: He is unrelentingly self-absorbed. Even with sinking approval ratings, he still couldn’t help but make the campaign about himself.
Naturally, Obama supports these Democrats that have voted for his agenda so reliably. Still, he could have argued on their behalf in ways that kept himself out of the equation. He could have credited their work ethic, their legislative skills, or even their eloquence; instead he couldn’t resist bringing it all back to himself. They are good for me. They vote with me.
Obama is defiantly unwilling to acknowledge that a majority of America disapproves of his job performance. In Colorado and New Hampshire — like so many other competitive states — the level of disapproval even exceeds the national average. That simply makes Udall and Shaheen’s unwavering support for such an oblivious leader all the more problematic.
Now, in the waning days of the campaign, they have been tagged with “rubber stamp” label by the president himself. It’s an endorsement they earned. But it’s also an endorsement they didn’t ask for — and one they most certainly didn’t need.John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe. He and Shaheen ran against each other twice.