President Obama won't have to face voters again, but a handful of Democratic senators from conservative states will, and the president's agenda, newly stamped with a liberal imprimatur at the inauguration, could prove tricky for them to navigate.
How they go about doing that will require distancing themselves from the national Democratic Party and keeping their political antennae attuned to possible stumbling blocks in the Senate--what Democratic strategist Jim Manley calls a "yin and a yang equation."
"The yin is differentiation; the yang is also trying to avoid the minefield that the Republicans are going to lay for you on the floor of the Senate," he said.
One "minefield" issue is gun control, which for many of the vulnerable lawmakers is shaping up to be difficult to support. Obama will need their support, but it's far from certain that enough Democratic lawmakers would be willing to risk reelection to support the president's legislation.
"I refuse to believe that anyone in this day and age isn't taking their election cycle seriously," Manley said. That translates into a cautious approach.
Just look at the replies to gun control: Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana pointed to her state's strong hunting culture and called for "balance." Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota said his state doesn't have the same problems with guns as New York or New Jersey, and he stressed that he was a hunter himself. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is not up for reelection until 2018, has become a leading voice in the gun-control debate since the Connecticut shooting, telling gun owners "that there is no way they are going to take your Second Amendment rights away."
Lawmakers have also tacked to the right of the president on other issues, such as the Keystone XL pipeline. A bipartisan group of senators, including Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Landrieu, signed onto a letter coauthored by Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, who is also up in 2014, calling on Obama to consider the jobs the pipeline could bring to the region. Obama delayed the project before the November election, a sign applauded by environmental groups but derided on the right--a perfect lens for the red-state Democrats, then.
"A couple of cycles ago, people were still getting caught not paying close attention back home," but not now, Manley said.
Drawing a distinction between the president and the national party is one approach for conservative-state Democrats. But not the only one. Politics is still, in fact, a local affair.
Landrieu, for example is already touting legislation that she argues helps the Gulf Coast rebuild from the BP oil spill. She dared potential challengers, writing in an e-mail to backers: "Bring it on," the Times-Picayune reported.
Hagan is publicly pushing to help Marines affected by contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, according to multiple reports. She's also hired Lindsay Siler, who ran Obama's North Carolina campaign, as a senior adviser, a sign that, she is preparing for a highly competitive contest and wants someone by her side who also understands North Carolina.
Senators like Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Landrieu can also rely on their political families to separate themselves from the national party. Pryor's father, David Pryor, served in statewide office as governor and senator will be campaigning for his son. Landrieu is the daughter of Moon Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor and Housing and Urban Development secretary. Her brother is Mitch Landrieu, the popular mayor of New Orleans.
Incumbency traditionally insulates candidates, but that might not be enough in 2014 for the red-state senators.
"It's still difficult to defeat the incumbent. It's a hell of a lot easier than it has been," Manley said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misspelled Camp Lejeune.
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