What a difference a healthcare law makes.
Three House Democrats facing tough re-election bids this fall steered clear of President Obama in the months before he signed the health legislation into law but now say he is welcome to campaign for them in their divided districts.
"I don't know that we're going to ask him, but we're certainly not going to shy away from him," said a spokesman for Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Mich. "We would love to have him in the district."
Schauer's embrace of Obama -- he happily shared the stage recently when the president gave the University of Michigan commencement address -- followed a virtual blackout of the president's name from any of the 68 news releases Schauer's office issued from August to March, when opposition to healthcare reform was running high.
Before that, Schauer had praised Obama eight times in news releases from Inauguration Day through the end of July, before angry protesters seized the stage in the healthcare debate at town meetings across the nation.
Similar patterns were found in news releases issued by freshman Democratic Reps. Betsy Markey of Colorado and Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio. While both were quick to praise Obama during his first six months in office, together they mentioned him only a handful of times after the tide started turning against the health bill in August.
Now spokesmen for both Markey and Kilroy say they would love to have the president campaign for their bosses this fall. Vice President Biden already made a visit to Markey's eastern Colorado district late last month for a fundraiser.
The White House hasn't mapped out its travel plans yet for the midterm elections, but all three would seem likely to turn up on Obama's itinerary because they voted for the final version of the bill and are all being targeted for defeat by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
That Democrats in divided districts would even think of standing beside Obama reflects the change in his stature following the win on health care, at least in the eyes of his political followers. Although Obama's public opinion ratings haven't changed much since the vote, congressional Democrats do seem more willing to sing the president's praises these days.
Even the most vulnerable Republican in the House, Rep. Anh (Joseph) Cao of Louisiana, has spoken positively about Obama in recent months.
"My main goal in going to Congress is to serve the people of my district and to make those decisions in a morally responsible way," Cao said. "If my decisions conform with the president's position, then I will go with that. If they don't conform, that's what I have to live with."
Cao, who knocked off former Democratic Rep. William Jefferson in 2008 after the nine-term incumbent was indicted on corruption charges, is in a tight spot in a district that Obama carried with 75 percent of the vote.
Sean Cain, a political science professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said Republican donors will shun Cao if he appears too cozy with the president, while independents and Democrats will punish him if he isn't.
Cao was the only Republican to vote for healthcare reform last year, but opposed the bill in the final vote this year. The split vote doesn't appear to have affected his fundraising effort. FEC records show Cao has raised more than $1.26 million, while the Democratic challenger with the most money, Cedric Richmond, reported raising $408,550.
Schauer, Kilroy and Markey represent more evenly divided districts, but all three will face strong challengers this fall and must appeal to independent voters who can be fickle when evaluating Obama.
Ohio State University political science professor William Angel said he understands Kilroy's cautiousness about linking herself too much to the president.
"She's freaked by the tea party people," Angel said. "Obama and Democrats in Congress are linked. They're Tweedledee and Tweedledum. ... There's still a sentiment out there of wanting Obama to succeed, but a lot of Democrats that are freaked out about the tea party are thinking short-term and not long-term."
Both Schauer and Kilroy are preparing for rematches this fall against Republicans they defeated in 2008. Schauer is expected to face former Rep. Tim Walberg, while Kilroy will square off again with former state Sen. Steve Stivers.
Markey has a bevy of Republicans poised to take her on in a district she captured in 2008 from conservative Rep. Marilyn Musgrave. More than $355,000 of the $505,000 Markey raised in the first quarter came in during the two weeks after she said she would vote for the Democrats' healthcare bill, according to her chief of staff, Anne Caprara.
This article appears in the May 8, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.