Democratic candidates see Obama as either helper or foil

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

In Michigan, Rep. Gary Peters is happy to be seen eating deli sandwiches with President Obama while talking to constituents about increasing the federal minimum wage. In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan is building upon campaign infrastructure put in place by the Obama team in two successive presidential cycles.

On the other hand, an ad running in support of Florida Rep. Joe Garcia touts his taking "the White House to task for the disastrous health care web site." And in Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich wants to change Obama's mind about the federal oil-drilling prohibition in the Arctic wilderness.

All are Democratic candidates in 2014, but they're not of one mind when it comes to the role they want the head of the party to play in their election efforts.

Vulnerable Democrats would be happier if Obamacare were polling better with constituents and the president's popularity wasn't slipping downward. But they can't just wish him away -- and might not do so even if they could.

For one thing, the White House can still be valuable ally. Obama is raising millions of dollars for Democrats. He endorses candidates when they want his blessing, and he steers clear if his presence isn't a net plus in tough races. And veterans of his presidential election team are beginning to share key donor and voter data with Democratic candidates, all of whom believe money and organization will be essential if turnout among young progressives, minorities and unmarried women appears to be an uphill climb come November (a warning Obama himself has voiced).

GOP strategists are skeptical that organization and money can help Democrats this year. They know the president's poor job approval ratings and voter worries about the economy and Democratic policies pose risks in the midterms. And they look upon their opponents' political gyrations vis a vis Obama with glee.

The president's greatest asset to his party, however, is his ability to raise money for Democratic campaigns, which have outpaced Republican ones this year. While running his own re-election race in 2012, Obama's campaign irked congressional and local Democrats by keeping the cash to itself. This year, Obama has been sharing the wealth, actively fundraising for the Senate and House campaign committees.

On Wednesday, for example, he will attend fundraisers in Texas for those two committees. He has committed to a dozen such appearances, and has already done dozens for the DNC since his re-election in 2012. (And it can use the money, too, as the DNC enters this campaign season in debt.) Obama is traveling to the Lonestar State to give the keynote address at summit marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Houston. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis will also be present, and has said she welcomes the president and would not shy from a photo opportunity.

Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the president has been especially helpful at the grass-roots level through online fundraising.

"When the president puts his name on those e-mails, it shatters the records that have been shattered," the New York congressman said. "There's no question that the president helps to animate our base, and we will be asking him to use all the tools in his toolbox and our toolbox to further encourage and inspire and motivate our base."

With 2014 turnout among Democrats expected to be low, some party leaders think Obama's campaign infrastructure will be more valuable than money.

"I do not believe fundraising will be key in November. I think organization will be key," Rep. Jim Clyburn told MSNBC recently. "And if we can get the White House to come in, or at least the president's political operations, to help us at the state and local levels the way they did in Ohio and Florida [in 2012] -- the mechanisms they put in place were just great."

The president has repeatedly acknowledged the turnout challenge ahead, and how it could make the difference in which party controls Capitol Hill next year.

"We need to hang on to the Senate," Obama said at a recent fundraiser in Chicago. "We need to pick up seats in the House. We need to make sure that the public knows very clearly what is at stake in this election, and it's hard during midterms because Democrats have a tendency to get really excited during presidential years and then during the midterms we go into hibernation."

Democratic control of the Senate is integral to the remainder of Obama's time in office, as the House isn't like to turn over. But the White House and Democrats also know that making gains in state capitals is also important, especially given the role state legislatures will play in redistricting down the road.

"Where I think mistakes are made in these off-year elections is when we keep our focus on what's happening in this building, and who in this building is up for re-election," Clyburn told RCP outside the House chamber. "What happens [in the states] effects the seats in this hall. I don't think we see that. The people who can make my life miserable are the people who draw the lines in the state legislatures."

Democrats have several pickup opportunities in governors' races in states Obama carried in 2012, and coordinated campaigns could help drive turnout. So, too, can ballot initiatives. Michigan, for example, is one of several states where an increase in the minimum wage will be up for a vote in November. (Obama is pushing for a federal increase to $10.10 an hour, and the White House and Democrats hope this issue draws Democrats to the polls.)

That's why Peters, who is running for Michigan's open Senate seat, was glad the White House invited him to join the president on a swing through Ann Arbor to talk about the issue. After lunch at the popular Zingerman's Delicatessen, the pair traveled together to the nearby University of Michigan campus, where the president began a base-rousing speech by mentioning Peters and other members of the state's congressional delegation.

Peters, whose district includes the Detroit suburbs, is locked in a tight race with likely GOP nominee Terri Lynn Land. Many Democrats running in 2014 would have avoided the public and private face time Peters shared with Obama (they were followed at each stop by a pool of national reporters as well as constituents snapping pictures).

For Peters, the appearance made political sense. The president won his state twice and is more welcome there than in other swing or red states, where Democrats are hoping to hang on to their seats. The candidate was all over the newspapers and airwaves in the Detroit market, pushing an issue that resonates particularly well with voters there.

"The president can play a major role in letting people know what the stakes are in the election ... and the fundamental differences," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who chaired the House Democrats' campaign arm in 2010. "If he is out around the country talking about those issues just like he did in Michigan, that will be a big boost to our candidates."

The minimum wage is also an issue in North Carolina, whose vulnerable senator, Hagan, is a co-sponsor of legislation in the upper chamber to increase it. While the president will elevate the issue across the country, Hagan wants to do so without him in her state, where Obamacare's unpopularity is dragging her down. She can also offset that downward pull by taking advantage of the president's campaign infrastructure, which includes precious data on voters and a volunteer base, all of which helped propel him to victory in the Tar Heel State in 2008.

Democrats are building on Obama campaign data across the country, and believe their digital operations can make the difference in some key Senate races. The Democratic National Committee now houses voter information data from the campaign, which has become a 501(c)(4) called Organizing for Action. State parties and campaigns have access to this data for varying fees.

Democrats hope that these get-out-the vote tools will enable them to make the midterm electorate -- which tends to be older, whiter and more conservative -- look more like the presidential ones of recent years. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is also planning to spend $60 million on field organizing.

The party got its first taste of the difficulty ahead when a special election was held last month in Florida's 13th District. Democrats had a financial advantage in that race, in which the health care law took center stage, but blamed their two-point loss on low turnout. Democrat Alex Sink's campaign didn't receive Obama's Florida campaign volunteer list until a month before the election, and relied on an email list Sink had cultivated through her previous run for governor. Operatives are confident candidates will be able to access the voter and volunteer information they need in time for the November elections.

Candidates typically "just don't have a comprehensive list of volunteers or prospects, and that's one way the administration and OFA can help," said one Democratic operative. "Lists and organization are every day either growing stronger or getting weaker. It's like a muscle -- you have to work it out to get it to continue strengthening, or otherwise it's losing steam."

Bigger challenges on that front come in states like Arkansas and Alaska, where Democrats haven't been competitive on the presidential level in decades and where Democratic incumbent senators are up for re-election. In these places, the vulnerable candidates are hoping to use the president for contrast from their own positions. (Obama, for his part, has offered to stay away if it helps the Democrats' prospects.)

In Arizona, Democratic Rep. Ron Barber doesn't want any help from the president in mobilizing voters, and said he will depend instead on the field operation he has been cultivating, collecting data from early voting registration records. "We're taking the responsibility for winning this election and getting the voters out on our shoulders," he said.

But an Obama event Tuesday on paycheck fairness might be of interest to Barber, who is a co-sponsor of equal pay legislation in the House. Obama will sign two executive orders associated with equal pay, part of a coordinated effort with Democratic campaign committees to push an issue intended to mobilize base voters, especially women, and to help raise money.

RealClearPolitics' Alexis Simendinger and Adam O'Neal contributed to this report.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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