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Feb. 22, 2011, 2:37 p.m.

“Less bad is nev­er good enough”

RENO, Nev. — If Demo­crats have proven any­thing over the last sev­er­al years, it’s that they have be­come ad­ept at cap­tur­ing spe­cial-elec­tion con­tests that they have little busi­ness win­ning. But in two spe­cial elec­tions next week, Demo­crats could fi­nally get some very bad news.

In con­tests in Nevada and New York state, Demo­crats find them­selves on the de­fens­ive. And per­haps most omin­ously for a party that is pre­par­ing to de­fend the White House in just 14 months, Pres­id­ent Obama is play­ing op­pos­ing, and telling, parts in each race: He is an ever-present al­batross in a red Nevada dis­trict and is vir­tu­ally ab­sent from the con­ver­sa­tion in a much blu­er dis­trict that lies with­in the New York City lim­its.

In Nevada, Demo­crats once had high hopes of pick­ing off a seat va­cated when Rep. Dean Heller ac­cep­ted an ap­point­ment to the Sen­ate. Heller’s former dis­trict, which touches urb­an Clark County, in­cludes the state’s rur­al areas and Washoe County, home of Reno and Lake Tahoe. The dis­trict leans Re­pub­lic­an; in 2008, Sen. John Mc­Cain won it by less than 1,000 votes, and al­though Demo­crats con­tested the seat in 2006, Heller won by 5 points.

Demo­crat­ic hopes res­ted with the pro­spects of a win­ner-take-all elec­tion that could have split the vote between sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­an con­tenders and al­lowed Demo­crat­ic state Treas­urer Kate Mar­shall to win with a plur­al­ity. But a judge nixed that pos­sib­il­ity and re­quired each party to pick a single nom­in­ee.

On Tues­day, Mar­shall will face former state Sen. Mark Amod­ei, a can­did­ate with plenty of flaws. Oth­er con­tenders who sought the seat be­lieved they could con­vince Re­pub­lic­an voters that Amod­ei’s votes in the state Le­gis­lature made him a tax-hiker, a line of at­tack that Mar­shall has picked up in tele­vi­sion ads. But Mar­shall’s at­tacks, primar­ily tar­get­ing Amod­ei’s sup­port for House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an‘s plan to over­haul Medi­care, have failed to gain any trac­tion.

Part of the reas­on, ob­serv­ers say, is Obama’s low pop­ular­ity in the dis­trict. The pres­id­ent’s stand­ing among in­de­pend­ent voters has eroded to such a de­gree that Amod­ei has run ads show­ing Mar­shall and Obama re­cit­ing the same lines. “When the dis­trict is so anti-Demo­crat­ic, you don’t want to be run­ning on the Demo­crat­ic play­book,” one Mar­shall ad­viser said.

Demo­crats are por­tray­ing the race as bey­ond their grasp, but they’re pleased that Re­pub­lic­ans are spend­ing money to de­fend the seat; the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee has laid out about $600,000 on the race, and the con­ser­vat­ive group Amer­ic­an Cross­roads has poured in an­oth­er $250,000. The Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee’s in­vest­ment has been lim­ited to a few field staffers dis­patched from Wash­ing­ton. In truth, the party has all but giv­en up on win­ning; early-vot­ing num­bers show a slug­gish Demo­crat­ic turnout, sug­gest­ing that Amod­ei is en route to a big win.

The spe­cial elec­tion in New York to suc­ceed dis­graced ex-Rep. An­thony Wein­er may be more troub­ling for Demo­crats. Sev­er­al private polls con­duc­ted for Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans alike have shown the race with­in single di­gits. A poll con­duc­ted for Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate Bob Turn­er showed the con­test tied, while a DCCC sur­vey showed Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee Dav­id We­prin lead­ing by 8 points. In either case, that is far too close for a dis­trict that gave Pres­id­ent Obama 55 per­cent of the vote and reelec­ted Wein­er by wider mar­gins.

Demo­crats are quietly rais­ing the alarm and bring­ing in big names to help We­prin’s cam­paign. Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, who once held the Queens and Brook­lyn-based dis­trict, cam­paigned with We­prin earli­er this week; Gov. An­drew Cuomo has said he will do so at some point be­fore Tues­day’s elec­tion. Obama’s cam­paign has e-mailed its list of sup­port­ers, ask­ing them to call and ring door­bells on We­prin’s be­half.

But We­prin him­self has been loathe to em­brace Obama. “I’ve nev­er met Pres­id­ent Obama. [Turn­er] is run­ning against me,” he told the New York Post this week. We­prin ad­ded that he is “”very strongly against [Obama] on some of his policies.” Even Cuomo tried to put some dis­tance between We­prin and Obama: “There are two names on the bal­lot and neither is Obama,” the gov­ernor told the New York Daily News.

Even though this is New York City, Obama’s rat­ings are suf­fer­ing. The poll con­duc­ted for Turn­er’s cam­paign by the Re­pub­lic­an firm McLaugh­lin & As­so­ci­ates pegged Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ing at just 40 per­cent, with 54 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al.

Al­though Obama may be un­pop­u­lar, Re­pub­lic­ans are tak­ing care to stay un­der the radar. The NR­CC has re­fused to say how much it is in­vest­ing in the race, be­cause any as­so­ci­ation between the na­tion­al party and Turn­er’s cam­paign will do more harm than good. In­stead, Re­pub­lic­ans are dir­ect­ing their mem­bers to give to Turn­er’s cam­paign and con­trib­ut­ing through the New York state Re­pub­lic­an Party. If We­prin does pull out the win, Re­pub­lic­ans will likely blame a flawed can­did­ate.

In both cases, the of­fi­cial line is that Obama isn’t an is­sue. “There is noth­ing these Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates can do to hide their ex­treme agenda — from slash­ing Medi­care to pro­tect­ing tax loop­holes for com­pan­ies that out­source jobs — and that’s what these races are about,” said Jesse Fer­guson, a DCCC spokes­man.

Demo­crats have had im­press­ive suc­cess in the past half-dec­ade in win­ning spe­cial elec­tions. Over that time, they have picked off five Re­pub­lic­an-held seats, while Re­pub­lic­ans have won only a single Demo­crat­ic seat, and then only be­cause a win­ner-take-all race di­vided Demo­crat­ic votes. But thanks to Obama’s dis­mal poll num­bers, Demo­crats won’t have that same kind of suc­cess on Tues­day. In fact, if things go wrong, it could be Re­pub­lic­ans who start brag­ging about mak­ing in­roads in places they shouldn’t oth­er­wise be able to reach.

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