As Democrats try to keep their lock on the Senate next year, some of their most vulnerable incumbents have a problem with President Barack Obama: They can’t win with him, but they probably can’t win without him, either.
The party desperately needs African-American voters to vote in numbers approaching last year’s turnout. Embracing Obama and his divisive health care law would no doubt help — the legislation is popular with the Democratic base, particularly among minorities.
But get too close to the president and Democrats on the 2014 ballot could alienate white swing voters who hold the key to the midterms, which inherently favor Republicans.
The problem is most acute for three Southern Democratic senators from states with large black populations that Obama lost in November: Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, North Carolina’s Kay Hagan and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor. Republicans need to pick up six seats to win the Senate, and the red-state Democrats, who all voted for Obamacare, top the GOP’s target list.
This same dynamic worries House Democrats. A case in point is Georgia Rep. John Barrow: He is one of the most endangered Democrats in the country but survived in a district that Mitt Romney carried by double digits. One of the main reasons was high turnout among blacks, who compose about a third of his district’s electorate. (Barrow voted against the Democratic health care law but has also opposed repealing it.)
Nationally in 2012, blacks voted at higher rates than whites for the first time. The census reported that about 66.2 percent of eligible black voters cast ballots in 2012, up from 64.7 percent in 2008. Turnout in the 2010 midterms dropped off around 20 percent from 2008, pollsters say.
A year-and-a-half out from the election, Pryor is already feeling the vise tighten.
Michael Bloomberg’s gun control group is airing radio and TV spots attacking the Arkansan for breaking with Obama on background checks for firearms purchases last month; he was one of four Senate Democrats to do so. The group announced it would target the state’s African-American community, “without which Mark Pryor doesn’t have a prayer of getting reelected,”said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
On the other side, the conservative Club for Growth is already airing ads that describe Pryor as “Obama’s best ally in Arkansas.” Obama lost the state by 24 points.
“They’re going to attach Obama to us as much as humanly possible,” said a Democratic strategist involved in the race. “That argument will be made regardless of what we do.”
Pryor, who has described himself as “nonpartisan,” took pains last year to distance himself from the president during the campaign, at one point saying it was “totally secondary to me” whether Romney or Obama won.
“I’m not there to represent a president,” the two-term senator said.
The failure to be vocally supportive of the first African-American president and his agenda on everything from immigration to guns already appears to be dampening enthusiasm among some African-Americans. Fourteen percent of registered Arkansas voters are black.
“There are many African-Americans who are quite bothered by some of the votes that Sen. Pryor has taken,” said Joyce Elliott, vice chairwoman of the Arkansas Democratic Party and the former state Senate majority leader. “I’ve had lots of conversations with African-Americans who just don’t want to even talk about it, who say, ‘Maybe I just won’t vote.’”
Obamacare may be the thorniest issue for the three. The law is a big liability with white independent voters and may become more so as inevitable problems crop up with its implementation. But the president’s namesake is beloved by the black community.
In Louisiana, where one-third of registered voters are black, a March poll from nonpartisan Southern Media and Opinion Research found that 56 percent of voters said Landrieu’s vote for Obamacare makes them less likely to vote for her. While 74 percent of whites said they are less inclined to back Landrieu because of her support, only 11 percent of blacks said so.
“Everything points to a pretty close election, and one of the things that would kill her is if there’s a poor African-American turnout,” said the firm’s pollster, Bernie Pinsonat. “No other issue really matters. They all pale in comparison to Obamacare. Her vote was the one that enabled it to pass.”
The disparity between white and black turnout typically widens by at least 5 percent in a midterm election compared with a presidential year, Pinsonat added.
“The bottom line is, if she receives a light turnout, I don’t think she can win,” the pollster said. “If there’s a 10 percent turnout differential, which is possible, then she needs more whites and I don’t know where she can get them from.”
So it is notable that Landrieu continues to call herself “proud” and “glad” she voted for the law. The senior senator is also pressing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to expand Medicaid, which is much more popular.
Former Rep. Charlie Melancon, the Democratic nominee for Senate in 2010, was a Blue Dog who opposed the Affordable Care Act.
“Part of my problem was a number of blacks that could have gotten out there and helped me said, ‘You voted against the president on Obamacare and energy,’” he recalled.
Some national Democrats have urged these senators to call for tweaks in the law and to improve implementation, which they think will play well with independents and be acceptable to black voters.
“To the extent that her identifiable support for the measure remains intact, that’s going to matter a lot to the African-American voter,” North Carolina Democratic consultant Courtney Crowder said of Hagan.
The 2010 drop-off accounted for a dip of several points in Democratic vote totals.
“They have to work really hard to engage the African-American community but in a way that does not directly bring the president into the picture,” said Public Policy Polling director Tom Jensen, a Democrat.
Democrats treat it as a given that they’ll sweep the black vote. They see the issue as the number, not the share, of African-Americans’ votes. So apathy is the enemy.
“I would say that it would be important that Sen. Hagan … [continues to] not be seen as running away from those difficult issues that might disproportionately affect those who are African-American or of color,” said Brad Thompson, the former state director for John Edwards.
Republicans, for their part, are touting their plans to make inroads among black voters. The Republican National Committee promises to hire African-American statewide directors and field staff in all three states. This is an outgrowth of the Growth and Opportunity Project, or “autopsy” report, after last fall’s losses.
Landrieu and Pryor both won competitive races with strong black support in the 2002 midterms, another tough year for their party and before Obama stepped onto the national stage.
Hagan was a state senator when she upset Elizabeth Dole in 2008, but she outperformed Obama by 100,000 votes.
North Carolina, where one-quarter of registered voters are black, might also be the only one of the three states where Obama could help the incumbent. He won in 2008 and lost narrowly there in 2012. An active Democratic effort last year to sign up new voters, especially blacks, helped give Democrats a 782,000-voter registration advantage over Republicans.
Hagan advisers said the senator is trying neither to cozy up nor distance herself from Obama.
“She’s a strong moderate,” said Hagan campaign manager Preston Elliott. “It’s really not a balancing act. It’s a matter of her doing what she needs to do for North Carolina.”
Louisiana and Arkansas did not have competitive statewide races in 2012, so Democrats there have more makeup work to do and an organization to build. For example, the Obama campaign’s investment in field effort resulted in a 79 percent turnout rate among black voters in North Carolina last November, the highest in the country. Only 49 percent of blacks voted in Arkansas, according to census data.
Louisiana has the largest black population of the three states, and Landrieu enjoys a close relationship with the community. Her father, Moon, helped integrate New Orleans as mayor in the 1970s. Her brother Mitch is the current mayor and has high approval ratings.
In Arkansas, former Gov. and President Bill Clinton, who is sometimes half-jokingly called “the first black president,” is a not-so-secret weapon for Pryor. He helped him raise $1 million in the first quarter of the year and will presumably return next fall to help rally black turnout.
The game plan for all three campaigns is to draw a sharp contrast with their eventual opponent, warning that any Republican will be hostile to Obama. Democrats also plan to highlight conservative bills being pushed through the legislatures of all three states, such as restrictive voter ID laws, which they believe will galvanize black voters.
North Carolina Republicans passed a law in March to block the expansion of Medicaid. They’ve also considered a voter ID proposal and budget cuts for historically black colleges, prompting protests in Raleigh by NAACP activists.
“It will be some of these local and state-level proposals driving the desire to keep Kay Hagan,” said Crowder, who worked for former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. “Although we’re talking about a federal candidate at the top of the ticket, there will be state-based issues that drive the interest in keeping her.”