“President Obama’s new EPA rule is more proof that Washington isn’t working for Kentucky.” Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrats’ great hope for beating Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, is doing her best to keep voters from associating her too closely with the president.
She’s not the only one. Natalie Tennant, the Democratic Senate candidate in West Virginia, is running a pro-coal ad in which she shuts off the power to the White House.
Democrats are distancing themselves from the president across the country, even in blue states.
Colorado, a state Barack Obama won twice, has a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators. One of those senators, Mark Udall, is up for re-election this year. He decided not to attend a fundraiser with the president in his own state a few weeks ago. It was more important for Udall to stay in Washington to take part in the 71-26 confirmation vote for Obama’s nominee to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
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Not coincidentally, about 54 percent of Coloradans disapprove of Obama’s job performance.
If they win, Grimes, Tennant and Udall will almost always vote with the Obama administration over the next two years, then spend four more largely voting in ways Obama would approve of. The parties are pretty unified these days ideologically.
What’s more, voters seem to know it. Most candidates who try to separate themselves from their party’s leadership end up losing. (There are occasional exceptions: In 2010, Joe Manchin was able to separate himself from Obama in West Virginia by running an ad in which he took a shotgun to a copy of the cap-and-trade bill the administration was backing. But he was already a popular governor.)
When there’s a wave for one party or the other in an election, voters simply don’t seem to do much discriminating among the candidates. Bob Ehrlich was a successful governor of Maryland in 2006, when he ran for re-election. But that was a terrible year for Republicans. He was a moderate and had healthy approval ratings. None of it saved him. He was brought down by the unpopularity of the Iraq war, even though, as a governor, he had nothing to do with it.
Likewise, a lot of conservative Democrats who had voted against Obama’s main priorities – including about half the House’s “Blue Dog” coalition – got swept out in a huge Republican wave in the 2010 midterm elections.
When a candidate tries to separate himself from his party’s leadership, he’s assuming that the party’s core supporters will understand that he needs to do it: that the checks will keep arriving and the activists will keep knocking on doors. But there’s always the risk of demoralization.
In a poll released over the weekend, Tennant was eight points behind in her race. If that keeps up, national Democrats will turn off the power to her campaign well before Election Day.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics for 18 years, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a resident fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.