Going Where He's Wanted: Obama Boosts Some Vulnerable Democrats in Tight Primaries

With his popularity in decline, many of this cycle’s most vulnerable Democrats avoid association with President Barack Obama.

But a small group of select incumbents are embracing the second-term president, seeking and touting his support on the trail as a badge of honor.

So far, Obama has endorsed six Democratic incumbents who face serious primary challenges this cycle. Each member hails from a strong Democratic district, many of which have large minority populations that overwhelmingly support the president.

“My constituents love and support the president by about 95 percent, and so he’s quite popular, and it’s always helpful to have the president’s endorsement in my district,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who faces the toughest primary of his career this year from a well-liked sheriff in his black-majority district.

Obama has endorsed Johnson, along with Reps. Michael M. Honda of California, Eric Swalwell of California, Donna Edwards of Maryland and Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii. Rep. Marc Veasey of Texas received Obama’s endorsement earlier this year, before he defeated a deep-pocketed attorney in the primary.

Democratic operatives said these endorsements will translate into some much-needed goodwill on Capitol Hill for the president. Obama has struggled with his relationship with Congress since the start of his presidency.

“Where’s the upside in not endorsing?” one longtime Democratic fundraiser asked. “If [Obama] has any major initiatives that can get done in the next two-and-a-half years, he’s going to need every Democrat in the House. Especially if they are going to try and do a deal on immigration, or try and do a deal on transportation funding or the minimum wage.”

Veasey, whose Obama endorsement came just days before the primary and earned considerable amount of local and national press, credited the president’s support as a factor in his win. His opponent, Tom Sanchez, spent more than $1 million to try and defeat Veasey.

“In Texas, we really didn’t have any statewide primaries like the Republicans did to drive the enthusiasm. There weren’t any highly contested races, so it was really the congressional race and a couple of local races driving turnout,” Veasey said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “Obama’s endorsement added an extra layer of enthusiasm, and I think that that would be helpful to Democrats throughout the entire fall, especially in areas like mine.”

Honda, who received Obama’s endorsement last summer, hopes for similar results.

The seven-term Democrat faces the toughest re-election fight of his career against attorney Ro Khanna. Khanna’s campaign is staffed with a number of former Obama campaign employees, and he already has nearly $2 million in the bank.

“It means the whole world to me,” Honda said of Obama’s endorsement. “I think it’s a major endorsement. I think somebody who’s in District 17 and sees [the endorsement], they say, ‘Oh wow, he has the president’s endorsement.’ It’s a great brand to have.”

Edwards, who has been a champion of Obama’s legislative priorities such as raising the minimum wage and defending the Affordable Care Act, was approached by the president, who offered her his endorsement.

But some members had to ask for it.

“I saw him and asked. I said, ‘Mr. President, it would help me. I have a serious primary and I sure would appreciate your support,’ and he came through,” Veasey said.

Last cycle, Obama endorsed at least a handful of Democratic incumbents who faced primaries, including Reps. John Lewis of Georgia, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, Frederica S. Wilson of Florida, Nydia M. Velázquez of New York and Pete Stark of California.

Swalwell defeated Stark, and now the freshman is touting the president’s backing in his primary. Swalwell said he mentions the president’s endorsement to voters and plans to use it in paid communications. This cycle, Swalwell faces state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett.

Other Democrats who received Obama’s endorsement plan to use it in their communication with voters as a selling point for their re-election bids, whether through mail or television advertisements.

“I think at the end of the day people are voting for the person whose name is on the ballot,” Swalwell said. “But when they see that I’ve been able to work with the president on his economic agenda, I think it’s an extra boost that you need headed toward the goal line.

“My next ask will be to come out to the district,” he added.