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Democrats Have a Plan to Overcome Obama in Red States

Hagan is a North Carolina Democrat seeking re-election this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As national analysts say the odds are increasingly against them , Democratic senators and senior operatives remain optimistic the party’s most vulnerable incumbents can survive stiff re-election challenges, even in red states where the president’s popularity is sunk.  

With his national approval ratings mired in the low 40s seven weeks out from the Nov. 4 elections, Senate Democrats are well aware of the anchor President Barack Obama is proving to be in the midterms. It's clear party strategists have had to tailor their red-state strategies around that reality on a map already tilted against them, with three principles at the crux of Democrats’ path to defend seats in GOP-leaning and solidly Republican states where the majority will be won or lost.  

As Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil outlined in an interview last week with CQ Roll Call, it’s imperative for Democrats in these states to remind voters why they supported the incumbent in the first place, to over-perform generic Democratic numbers and continue to fund persuasion efforts — along with getting out the vote — through Election Day.  

“The president’s ratings are a factor in our elections, but they are not the only factor in our elections,” Cecil said, noting the tens of millions of dollars being spent on advertising and the DSCC’s field campaign efforts. In interviews on Capitol Hill last week, Democratic senators were adamant that their colleagues’ individual profiles could outweigh the inherent connection to the unpopular president, even as Republicans were exuding a growing sense that the majority is well within reach . The most vulnerable incumbents include Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — all but Hagan are from states the president lost by at least 14 points.  

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win control of the Senate, and they are working with a competitive map filled with friendly territory.  

At the same time, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week found just 23 percent of registered voters said the country was headed in the right direction and 40 percent approved of the job Obama is doing. The president's approval rating has been underwater in the RealClearPolitics average for well more than a year .  

“It’s something to be concerned about. Sure it is, of course,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat whose retirement created a vulnerable open seat in Iowa, a swing state. But, he added, “It can be overcome. I got elected to the Senate when Ronald Reagan won a landslide in 1984, so you can differentiate.”  

To win states the president — who isn’t any more popular now — lost by significant margins just two years ago, it’s vital Democrats make the races exclusively “about the two people that are on the ballot,” Cecil said.  

Half of that equation is defining Republican candidates — Democrats have been aided on that front by $40 million in spending by Senate Majority PAC and Patriot Majority USA across nine states. The other half was evident in early ads from the candidates, as Pryor clutched a Bible and said only God has all the answers; Landrieu sat beside her father , former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, for some casual banter; and Begich cruised along the frozen Arctic on a snowmachine and climbed aboard a prop plane to reach remote parts of the state.  

"Our work communicating with persuadable voters will continue right up until the end of Election Day," Cecil said. "And we’ve already started working on get-out-the-vote operations, early vote operations, vote by mail — all of the things that are going to be required to turn out the Democratic vote in a midterm election when we know it’s always more challenging to turn out the votes among Democrats."  

Two recent success stories for the party are Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana, who were re-elected in 2012 even as Obama lost both states by double digits. McCaskill entered that cycle among the most endangered, but she capitalized on a weak opponent, then-Rep. Todd Akin, who made the biggest gaffe of the cycle.  

“I’ve learned through my own experience that people in states are passing judgment on the two candidates that are running, and they want to make sure that the candidate they vote for is capable of independence from their party when the policy matters to their state,” McCaskill said. “So I’m not worried at all.”  

Tester, who has won with just 49 percent of the vote in his two Senate victories, echoed that sentiment.  

“In Montana, you run your own race and talk about what you’ve done, talk about how you’ve responded to your constituency,” he said. “Look, I know Mary and I know Pryor both. They work hard and they do a good job. And I think they’ll win their races because of that.”  

Of course, those victories came with Obama at the top of the ballot, giving voters the ability to vote against the president. In a midterm, frustrated voters’ only recourse is to punish members of Obama’s party. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said that's exactly what he expects to happen.  

"It’s the policies that are the problem," he said, "and people who voted for those policies are going to end up paying a price in November."  

National Republicans, who have been significantly outraised by the DSCC, put an added emphasis this cycle on not only recruiting strong candidates, but also on assembling the right teams around them and limiting the self-imposed errors that plagued their prospects in previous cycles. The National Republican Senatorial Committee last week distributed in one email 15 news clips pointing to a favorable climate for a significant increase in Senate seats, including polling that illustrates Obama's weak standing among voters.  

“I think it helps to create the environment for success, but you’ve got to have the right candidate and the right message and the resources, and that’s what we’re working on,” said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, vice chairman of the NRSC.  

As the two of them stepped onto an elevator in the Russell Building, Portman pointed to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. Portman noted the former governor was elected to the Senate in 2010 with 76 percent of the vote — but then Republicans failed to pick up an open seat there two years later.  

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s, D-N.D., remarkable victory in 2012 proved Republican candidates running almost exclusively against Obama, who lost the state by some 20 points, is not always enough.  

“So we’ve got to have the right candidate and the right message,” Portman said. “And not necessarily the cookie-cutter message.”  

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