A raft of prominent Democrats have already distanced themselves from their party by promising to stay away from its national convention in Charlotte this week. Most are from red states (Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri) or districts (Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah, John Barrow of Georgia, and Nick Rahall of West Virginia) where President Obama is unpopular. These pols say they just want to press the flesh back home, but Republicans call it a symbol of the country’s eroding public support for Obama.
Veteran political strategists have another term for it: standard operating procedure. “I honestly think it’s blown out of proportion,” said Democratic strategist Steve Jarding, who has made a career of guiding Democratic candidates in more-conservative states. Indeed, several Republicans running in competitive races also skipped their party’s convention, including Senate candidates Linda Lingle in Hawaii, Rep. Denny Rehberg in Montana, and Heather Wilson in New Mexico.
(GALLERY: See Who Is Skipping Their Convention)
Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s campaign manager in 2008, faced a similar situation then. “Politicians as a species have a highly attuned instinct for self-preservation,” Schmidt said. Nevertheless, Schmidt is taking some pleasure in a political climate that has generally reversed itself since 2008. “He’s running in a very different environment in a time of economic crisis as an incumbent,” Schmidt said of Obama, “and the fact that he is weak in a number of states explains why all these Democrats who were ready to stampede over one another to get in photos with him four years ago now are all pretending they don’t know who he is.”
McCaskill, for instance, had a speaking role at the convention four years ago. Now, she says she doesn’t attend conventions in years when she is on the ballot.
Democrats say they are just fine with fellow partisans skipping the convention. Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the head of the House Democrats’ campaign operation, chose not to attend the 2000 convention during his first run for Congress and has encouraged Democratic candidates to do the same this year. His predecessor as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, gave the same advice in 2008.
“If they want to win an election, they need to be in their districts,” Israel said at a Reuters Summit in Washington this summer.
The option of snubbing the national party and skipping the convention is one of the few tools congressional candidates have to differentiate themselves from a party platform that is unpopular in many corners of the country. Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster with Hart Research, said that the White House and congressional party leaders are less concerned about the optics of Democrats distancing themselves and more about whether Tester and Co. can keep the Democrats in control of the Senate, or win back the House.
“They care 100 times more” about that, Molyneux said.