It’s been a tough summer for swing-district Democrats seeking reelection in 2012 with a president at the top of the ticket whose approval ratings are in the weeds.
As these members begin to focus on their reelection bids after Labor Day, they are increasingly calculating how close is too close to an unpopular President Obama.
Take Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who represents a district that nearly went for Republican George W. Bush in 2004. In a recent local TV interview, DeFazio said of Obama that the word “fight” isn’t “in his vocabulary” -- and he then repeated the criticism to constituents at a town hall. Or Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y., who won a Republican-friendly district in a special election last year and pointedly declined to endorse the sitting president last week.
The president’s dismal poll ratings, should they continue into next year, could sink Democratic hopes for reclaiming ground in the House and retaining control of the Senate -- especially in battleground states and swing districts.
“If he is where he is now, it’s not going to work for Democrats,” said Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., who opted earlier this year not to seek reelection in his competitive district.
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Democrats are also keeping their distance in two House special elections taking place later this month -- in both a solidly-Democratic district in New York City and a Republican-leaning one in rural Nevada. The sting of Obama’s low approval ratings is already being felt in Queens and Brooklyn, where Republican candidate Bob Turner has turned the Democratic-leaning district into a battleground by framing the special election as a referendum on the administration and its treatment of Israel. Liberal firebrand Anthony Weiner held onto that district with ease for more than a decade, and even when scandal forced him out of office, few had thought the race to replace him would be close.
In the Nevada race to replace Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., in the House, national Republican groups have aired advertisements connecting Democratic nominee Kate Marshall with Obama. Strategists from both parties expect Republican Mark Amodei to prevail -- in a district where Obama won 49 percent in 2008.
It’s a sea change from the early days of his presidency, when liberal and moderate Democrats alike sought to tie themselves to the president and benefit from his popularity and charisma. Most moderate Democrats supported his stimulus and health care reform legislation that they’re now distancing themselves from. Less than two years ago, Owens tied himself to the president’s agenda in his initial campaign for Congress. That’s now a distant memory.
Obama’s approval has dropped below 40 percent in Gallup’s tracking poll in recent weeks, and surveys show him running even with Republican presidential front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Most analysts believe Obama’s approval needs to be at least above 45 percent to have a good chance of winning reelection next year.
“I represent a district that Obama lost by 11 points in 2008,” said Rep, Jason Altmire, D-Pa., whose conservative district is being targeted by national Republicans. “I would not expect him to do well in this district.”
But Obama’s iffy prospects shouldn’t send Altmire and other vulnerable Democrats fleeing from the president, veteran strategists say. The calculus is a complicated one that should take into account that Obama remains more popular than Republicans in Congress.
Running away from the president could discourage loyal Democrats who still have faith in Obama from turning out at the polls in 2012. What’s more, if the Republican nominee turns out to be a tea-party branded conservative like Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann, Obama could plausibly pitch himself as the more reasonable, less ideological candidate to independent voters.