RENO, Nev. — If Democrats have proven anything over the last several years, it’s that they have become adept at capturing special-election contests that they have little business winning. But in two special elections next week, Democrats could finally get some very bad news.
In contests in Nevada and New York state, Democrats find themselves on the defensive. And perhaps most ominously for a party that is preparing to defend the White House in just 14 months, President Obama is playing opposing, and telling, parts in each race: He is an ever-present albatross in a red Nevada district and is virtually absent from the conversation in a much bluer district that lies within the New York City limits.
In Nevada, Democrats once had high hopes of picking off a seat vacated when Rep. Dean Heller accepted an appointment to the Senate. Heller’s former district, which touches urban Clark County, includes the state’s rural areas and Washoe County, home of Reno and Lake Tahoe. The district leans Republican; in 2008, Sen. John McCain won it by less than 1,000 votes, and although Democrats contested the seat in 2006, Heller won by 5 points.
Democratic hopes rested with the prospects of a winner-take-all election that could have split the vote between several Republican contenders and allowed Democratic state Treasurer Kate Marshall to win with a plurality. But a judge nixed that possibility and required each party to pick a single nominee.
On Tuesday, Marshall will face former state Sen. Mark Amodei, a candidate with plenty of flaws. Other contenders who sought the seat believed they could convince Republican voters that Amodei’s votes in the state Legislature made him a tax-hiker, a line of attack that Marshall has picked up in television ads. But Marshall’s attacks, primarily targeting Amodei’s support for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to overhaul Medicare, have failed to gain any traction.
Part of the reason, observers say, is Obama’s low popularity in the district. The president’s standing among independent voters has eroded to such a degree that Amodei has run ads showing Marshall and Obama reciting the same lines. “When the district is so anti-Democratic, you don’t want to be running on the Democratic playbook,” one Marshall adviser said.
Democrats are portraying the race as beyond their grasp, but they’re pleased that Republicans are spending money to defend the seat; the National Republican Congressional Committee has laid out about $600,000 on the race, and the conservative group American Crossroads has poured in another $250,000. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s investment has been limited to a few field staffers dispatched from Washington. In truth, the party has all but given up on winning; early-voting numbers show a sluggish Democratic turnout, suggesting that Amodei is en route to a big win.
The special election in New York to succeed disgraced ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner may be more troubling for Democrats. Several private polls conducted for Democrats and Republicans alike have shown the race within single digits. A poll conducted for Republican candidate Bob Turner showed the contest tied, while a DCCC survey showed Democratic nominee David Weprin leading by 8 points. In either case, that is far too close for a district that gave President Obama 55 percent of the vote and reelected Weiner by wider margins.
Democrats are quietly raising the alarm and bringing in big names to help Weprin’s campaign. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who once held the Queens and Brooklyn-based district, campaigned with Weprin earlier this week; Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will do so at some point before Tuesday’s election. Obama’s campaign has e-mailed its list of supporters, asking them to call and ring doorbells on Weprin’s behalf.
But Weprin himself has been loathe to embrace Obama. “I’ve never met President Obama. [Turner] is running against me,” he told the New York Post this week. Weprin added that he is “”very strongly against [Obama] on some of his policies.” Even Cuomo tried to put some distance between Weprin and Obama: “There are two names on the ballot and neither is Obama,” the governor told the New York Daily News.
Even though this is New York City, Obama’s ratings are suffering. The poll conducted for Turner’s campaign by the Republican firm McLaughlin & Associates pegged Obama’s job-approval rating at just 40 percent, with 54 percent disapproval.
Although Obama may be unpopular, Republicans are taking care to stay under the radar. The NRCC has refused to say how much it is investing in the race, because any association between the national party and Turner’s campaign will do more harm than good. Instead, Republicans are directing their members to give to Turner’s campaign and contributing through the New York state Republican Party. If Weprin does pull out the win, Republicans will likely blame a flawed candidate.
In both cases, the official line is that Obama isn’t an issue. “There is nothing these Republican candidates can do to hide their extreme agenda—from slashing Medicare to protecting tax loopholes for companies that outsource jobs—and that’s what these races are about,” said Jesse Ferguson, a DCCC spokesman.
Democrats have had impressive success in the past half-decade in winning special elections. Over that time, they have picked off five Republican-held seats, while Republicans have won only a single Democratic seat, and then only because a winner-take-all race divided Democratic votes. But thanks to Obama’s dismal poll numbers, Democrats won’t have that same kind of success on Tuesday. In fact, if things go wrong, it could be Republicans who start bragging about making inroads in places they shouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.
This article appears in the Sep. 8, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.