When President Obama took office, he tapped a slew of sitting senators to serve in his administration—Joe Biden as vice president, Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State, Ken Salazar as Interior secretary—moves that brought him experienced talent but put once-safe seats in play. It was a luxury he could afford, given that Democrats were sitting pretty with a 59-seat majority.
But now with Democratic numbers diminished and control of the Senate in play for 2012, Obama’s chances of maintaining a Senate majority might lie in his ability to coax two top lieutenants to mount Senate campaigns.
The Democrats’ best hope of holding on to a swing seat in Virginia and picking up an open seat in Arizona lies in the decisions of Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“Individually, they’re both accomplished and well-known and would have a vast fundraising network,” said former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee political director Martha McKenna. “They have mature political operations in the state.”
Neither has jumped at the opportunity. Kaine has said he’s not interested, but state Democratic strategists believe he’ll run if he gets a full-court press by the president. He’s appearing at Virginia Democrats’ annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner this weekend, which party strategists view as a sign he’s reconsidering. Napolitano has been frequently recruited for the Senate, but has rejected past entreaties.
Given how both are pivotal for the Democrats' 2012 map, Obama would be well-served by convincing his allies to take one for the team.
With only 10 Republican seats in play, Arizona is one of the few opportunities Democrats have to go on offense. Rep. Jeff Flake jumped into the Senate race on Monday, and he’s an early Republican frontrunner. But in a state where the GOP is deeply divided between fiscal conservatives and immigration hard-liners, expect a heated primary.
Flake is popular with fiscal hawks for his opposition to earmarks and his drive to lower spending. But some elements of the state's conservative base will have problems with his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants; his desire to end the trade embargo with Cuba; and his libertarian bent on some social issues—he was one of only 15 House Republicans to support the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service.
Napolitano could make things interesting. A two-term governor, she won re-election in a Republican state with 63 percent of the vote after a narrow win in 2002 – and has close ties with the state’s business community. Her political standing has been damaged by criticism that the Obama administration has been ineffective in securing the border and over its suing the state on its immigration law.
But her name recognition, fundraising ability and track record of winning statewide makes her a stronger candidate than other potential candidates who carry their own vulnerabilities on immigration, like Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon or former state Attorney General Terry Goddard.
And if Democrats want to extend their Southwestern inroads, particularly with the region’s Hispanic growth, it would be beneficial for Obama to have a down-ballot ally in Arizona who can boast of her own record with that community.
In Virginia, the gap between the White House favorite and the field is even greater. Kaine would be the big get; after him, the Democratic bench is thin.
Running alongside Obama, Kaine would be positioned to run up the score in Northern Virginia and benefit from high black turnout, while neutralizing GOP strengths in Richmond and Tidewater—a strategy that would mirror the president’s get-out-the-vote plan that won the state in 2008.
Kaine has liabilities: As DNC chairman, he’s the loyal foot soldier for the president’s policies, which haven’t played well in the Old Dominion. Kaine’s television appearances spouting the party line are great fodder for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and they’re already being used against him.
But the reality in 2012 is: Obama and the Democratic nominee are tied together, like it or not.
“Obama’s going to get a big Democratic vote in Virginia; it’s going to be one of those states he might need to win. That’s why Democrats can’t write the seat off,” said Democratic strategist Steve Jarding, a former adviser to Virginia Democratic Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner. “If this was 2014 or 2010, I’d say tough year. But Obama’s going to boost a lot of Democratic turnout.”
Indeed, with Obama at the top of the ticket generating enthusiasm for Democrats down-ballot, there wouldn’t be much room for a Senate nominee in Virginia to seek distance from the White House. Democratic strategists argue that, as a leading 2012 presidential battleground, the state’s Senate nominee would be best served by embracing the White House. Kaine, as Obama’s top cheerleader, fits the profile.
“Tim’s in a spot where if the president wants him to run, it would be difficult for him to turn down,” Jarding said.
Recruitment hasn’t been Obama’s strong suit. The president’s personal touch failed to convince North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper to challenge Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., or persuade Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to run for his former Senate seat. Their disinterest was as much about the poor political environment in 2010 as any lack of ambition.
But with Obama at the top of the ticket in 2012, the environment will be much different. The president will be front and center in every Senate race. If Obama can’t convince his top loyalists to run to help preserve a Democratic majority, it will be even tougher to convince voters.
This article appears in the Feb. 16, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.