Among a barrage of prominent statewide elected officials to back Obama publicly this month is Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, and U.S. Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Tim Johnson of South Dakota.
What all three politicians have in common is that they are Democrats who have cracked the code in getting elected in states where Republicans historically have triumphed at the presidential level. George W. Bush won these states both times.
So did most of his Republican predecessors. In fact, these three states have each voted for a Democratic presidential nominee only once since 1948.
The string of recent Obama endorsements seems to be more than a coincidence.
During extensive interviews in recent weeks in Republican-leaning states, Politico found widespread belief among current and former Democratic statewide officials that Obama is the more electable candidate with their electorates. These politicians also frequently registered a fear that Clinton’s personality and past history make her too polarizing to win independent and Republican-leaning voters.
The interviewing—which included both on-the-record and on-background exchanges with a couple dozen Democratic politicians—was focused on states that were won both times by Bush but also that were lost at least once by Bill Clinton.
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That list includes states, like South Carolina, that have been off the table for generations for Democrats. It also includes places on the edge of the table, like Colorado, which in recent elections has been in play even though Republicans usually win in the end.
“I happen to believe that Obama is the most electable, both in Virginia and elsewhere,” said Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, an early Obama backer. “I really think to win you gotta get independent votes….Independent voters like people who they don’t believe are defined by political orthodoxy.”
In Arizona, Napolitano first met Obama last February at a governor’s meeting in Washington and ruminated about her choice for months, following up with the candidate and his staff by phone and e-mail. She said she decided that Obama’s message of generational change and transcending partisan polarization in Washington was best-suited for winning the 2008 election, including in Arizona.
“One-third of our voters will be independent voters,” Napolitano said. “Whoever wins independents will win the state. That’s not to say she doesn’t or can’t. But he does better.”
Bill Clinton won Arizona in his 1996 re-election, but neither Al Gore nor John Kerry could put it in the Democratic column. Democrats believe the state—represented by Republican John McCain in the Senate—is gradually becoming a swing state as Hispanic voters and out-of-state suburban transplants change the complexion of a historically conservative state.
Historically, endorsements from fellow politicians are not major vote-drivers. Still, Napolitano’s blessing was well-timed for Obama, coming just days after the candidate came up short against Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. As an accomplished woman politician, Napolitano can help slow what in New Hampshire was a sharp tilt of women voters to Clinton, and also amplify Obama’s case that he is better suited to widen the battleground of competitive states in a general election.
Two days after Napolitano, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D-Mo.) nod for Obama had much the same effect. Missouri, unlike Arizona, is a classic swing state—-it has voted for Republicans and Demcrats seven times each since 1948.
Clinton is not bereft of prominent support from Democrats with experience winning statewide in presidential red states. Her backers include former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, and Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat.
She also has the support of former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley, who served in Bill Clinton’s administration as Secretary of Education. Citing her experience in New York, where Clinton softened up and eventually won over many upstate Republicans, Riley predicted she “will be very supported moderate Republicans and independents once they get to know her.”
“She’s very much a result-oriented person who works with all ideologies and all kinds of people,” added Riley, who is one of Clinton’s national co-chairs.
But Politico interviews suggested it is far easier to find red-state Democrats who regard Obama as the more promising bridge-builder, and regard him as the more likely candidate to either pick off a traditionally Republican state or at least make the GOP work harder to keep it.
One of Riley’s successors, former Gov. Jim Hodges, recently endorsed Obama. In an interview before he made his plans public, Hodges said, “there are many voters who surprised me when they talked about Obama—these are generally soft Republicans.”
These less-partisan Republicans, Hodges said, “tend to be more economic conservatives” and that Obama’s status as an African-American “doesn’t come up—that should be encouraging to the Obama campaign.”
Hodges also praised Clinton as someone who has “made a persuasive case on experience to Republican-leaning voters.”
But other politicians, given the protection of not-for-attribution comments, made clear their suspicion of Clinton as the party’s standard-bearer.
“It would be very hard for Clinton to do well here,” said a Democratic governor in a Southern state. “She remains a very polarizing figure.”
A Democrat who has won statewide in a Republican-leaning western state said: “I think her negatives are high out here, very high. Close to 50. That makes it very tough.”
Most of Clinton’s Democratic skeptics did not attribute her problems to her gender, though some did.
“I do somehow feel that statewide or national women candidates have a steeper hill out here,” said former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm.
Colorado has not gone Democratic since Bill Clinton won in 1992 with the help of independent Ross Perot, who siphoned support from President George H.W. Bush.
Even in 2004, when Coloradans elected Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar to replace a Republican and the state legislature flipped from red to blue, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry could not beat President George W. Bush.
Lamm and his wife, Dottie, are long-time friends of the Clintons and have stayed as their guests in the Arkansas governor’s mansion. While Dottie Lamm is backing Hillary Clinton, the former governor is supporting Obama as the person he believes is the more winning face of the party.
“Obama I think does offer a hope and a sincerity and a credibility that you don’t see in everyday politicians and it seems to come from a more real place than the calculated brilliance of Hillary Clinton,” said Lamm, who served as an iconoclastic governor in the 1970s and 1980s.
Responding to the recent Obama endorsements and the findings in the Politico interviews, Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee said: “Hillary Clinton has been pulling support from blue states, red states and purple states, from all over the country. We’ve got tremendous support from people that have gone Republican in the past, because those people believe she is not only the person that an bring chance, but is also the most electable.”
He cited one of Clinto’s recent swing-state endorsements, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, as a harbinger of her competitiveness in the general election if she is the general election nominee.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the support his candidate is gaining in traditionally Republican states shows, “Obama is the candidate best suited to not just win next November, but to win with a new governing majority.”
“Endorsements from respected leaders are important because Obama’s getting the stamp of approval of someone who’s very respected in the state,” Burton added. “But ultimately it’s Obama himself that has to close the deal with these voters.”
Chris Frates and Avi Zenilman contributed to this report.