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ON THE TRAIL

Obama Works The Primaries

The President's Unusual Early Endorsements Are All About Preserving His Legislative Agenda

What does it mean to be an Obama Democrat these days? Sens. Arlen Specter and Michael Bennet are hoping his endorsement will help them win competitive primaries. In New York, meanwhile, President Obama has made it clear he wants someone other than embattled Gov. David Paterson on the top of the ticket in 2010.

For Obama, the risk of wading into a competitive primary has to be weighed against the risk of losing his legislative agenda. These endorsements aren't about picking the strongest general election candidates in 2010. They're aimed much more at ensuring Obama keeps his wavering and wary party members on board for his legislative agenda. Showing the increasingly risk-averse Bennet, for example, that the White House has his back should help keep him on the White House wavelength.

 

A tough primary fight ensures that Specter keeps moving left, which in turn helps ensure that he remains a reliable ally for the White House.

To be sure, Obama risks losing some political capital if Bennet and/or Specter lose or if Paterson is the Democratic nominee. But that seems to be a risk worth taking. After all, losing the votes of Bennet, Specter or other vulnerable lawmakers on health care or other key legislative agenda items would hurt much more.

If political viability were the issue, it's hard to say that Specter is clearly the stronger general election candidate than Rep. Joe Sestak. Specter's got lots of money and statewide campaign experience. But he has to convince voters that, despite his decision to switch parties because he didn't want his "29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania primary electorate," they can trust him not to put his own self-interest ahead of the state's interests in the future.

 

An August Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll found Sestak and Specter faring about the same against former Club for Growth President Pat Toomey (R). A September Franklin & Marshall poll showed Specter ahead of Toomey and Sestak trailing. But Specter was still woefully far from 50 percent in that poll -- a dangerous place for any well-known, five-term incumbent.

Meanwhile, the Sestak/Toomey match-up showed almost half the electorate undecided, which means the race is still very fluid, with Sestak having more room to grow. The Kos poll showed Specter ahead of Sestak, but his lead had shrunk significantly since May.

There's no indication that an Obama endorsement will be enough to keep that lead from shrinking even more once these candidates start to engage in what is sure to be an expensive and spirited campaign. But when it comes to helping push his legislative agenda, there's little question that Obama needs Specter on his side more than ever. A tough primary fight ensures that Specter keeps moving left, which in turn helps ensure that he remains a reliable ally for the White House.

In Colorado, the president swooped in with an endorsement of the newly appointed Sen. Bennet just days after former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D) declared his candidacy. As with Pennsylvania's Senate primary, there's no empirical evidence that shows Bennet to be the stronger general election candidate. Neither Democrat is well known among Colorado voters, so the general is likely to be a referendum on Obama and the Democratic Congress.

 

Yet, as with Specter, it's Bennet's vote in Congress that's more important to the White House.

Meanwhile, Obama's not-so-subtle suggestion for Paterson to drop his bid for governor looks like it's about political viability, but it's also about votes in Congress. Polls show Paterson to be about as popular as athlete's foot and losing badly to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But is this really all about losing a governor's race? There are lots of other vulnerable incumbents and bad candidates out there. Why pick on this guy?

The Paterson decision seemed to be aimed as much at vulnerable congressional incumbents as at the governor. Message: This White House is taking the midterms seriously. There are at least five vulnerable Democratic incumbents in New York (six, if they win the special election in N.Y.-23). If Paterson loses badly, goes the theory, he could take some of these New York members with him. Plus, with New York scheduled to lose seats in the 2012 redistricting, Democrats in Washington want their party to be in charge in Albany.

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In practice, however, a popular or unpopular governor has little influence on the fate of federal candidates. It's Obama's approval ratings in November of 2010 that will matter more. In 2010, all Democrats are going to be Obama Democrats, whether they've earned the label or not.

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