Democrats Face Pros and Cons in Nationalizing 2010 Races

November 16, 2009 · 8:00 AM EST

David Axelrod has a cure that may be worse than the disease he’s trying to alleviate.

The senior White House adviser admitted that low turnout among base Democratic voters contributed to the party’s gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey last week. And the White House plans to nationalize the 2010 elections around President Barack Obama in order to regain the 2008 enthusiasm.

But some of the most vulnerable House Democrats represent districts won by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last year, and those Members may not be all that excited about a national referendum on Obama’s job performance. Furthermore, nationalizing the 2010 midterms could throw fuel on an already inflamed GOP electorate.

“The goal looking forward to 2010 —when we will in fact have a broad national election for Congress — is to motivate those independent voters who voted for us last time but stayed home this time,” Axelrod told Fox News last week.

The White House plans to nationalize the 2010 elections on its own terms by putting the president front and center in order to minimize the party’s losses, Axelrod explained to NBC’s “First Read.” The plan is to use the 2002 elections — when Republicans gained eight House seats and two Senate seats in President George W. Bush’s first midterm elections — as a blueprint.

But there is an underlying assumption that Obama will be at least as popular next November as he is this year. And Democrats appear to want the turnout benefits that a national election may bring without any of the backlash.

“We need to localize, not nationalize,” said one Democratic consultant who has a philosophical difference with Axelrod but declined to go on the record speaking against the White House.

Democrats had tremendous success nationalizing the past two elections by running against Bush and the “culture of corruption.” Now as the party in power, some Democratic strategists believe the party needs to take a different approach by running a series of local elections, framing them as a choice between two candidates, and systematically disqualifying the Republican challengers with their financial advantage.

“I don’t believe if they nationalized Virginia it would have changed anything,” added the Democratic source. Even though Axelrod dismissed last week’s losses as local elections, Republicans are happy to point out that instead of helping state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D) across the finish line in Virginia, the White House cut ties to him when it became apparent he wasn’t going to win. Obama campaigned with incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine (D) in New Jersey until the very end.

Meanwhile, Republicans are ready and waiting for a national fight.

“Super,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer said about Axelrod’s plan. “I can’t possibly imagine nationalizing the election helps [Blanche] Lincoln, [Michael] Bennet, [Paul] Hodes, or [Robin] Carnahan,” Jesmer added, talking about four of the most competitive Senate contests in the country in Arkansas, Colorado, New Hampshire and Missouri.

For example, the Democrats’ best strategy to take over the open Senate seat in Missouri would seem to be making the race a choice between Carnahan, the secretary of state, and former House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R) instead of a referendum on Obama, who lost the state narrowly last November.

The 2010 midterms will be the White House’s best opportunity yet to prove that Obama’s appeal is transferable to other candidates without the president on the ballot.

Even now, some Democratic incumbents aren’t buying what the president is selling and don’t believe his agenda is politically in-tune with their districts. Three dozen Democrats just voted against the health care bill that Obama will likely tout as the hallmark of his presidency. And at least a dozen or so Democrats have voted against other key legislation put forth by the party’s leadership and the White House.

Every Member wants to be thought of as independent and thoughtful, and with Obama touting his agenda next year, some Democratic incumbents will have to choose their opportunities to show their independence and hope it’s enough for the voters in the district.

Two years ago, Rep. Bobby Bright (Ala.), then the mayor of Montgomery, wouldn’t even admit who he was supporting in the presidential election, and now he’s one of 48 Democrats who represent districts that McCain won. Republican challengers in those districts are anxious for a national referendum on Obama and the White House agenda.

Democrats in their first and second terms will have to learn how to run against national trends in the vein of Reps. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah) — both of whom have held on to win in their overwhelmingly conservative districts despite being targeted for defeat.

Some strategists believe the national White House strategy and local Member strategy are complimentary. But one Democratic source cautioned against the White House “being too ‘ivory tower’” with their plan.

Other Democratic strategists are on board, and some are resigned to the fact that next year’s elections will be a referendum on Obama regardless of whether they want it to be.

“There is a degree to which we all live under the Democratic brand — as defined by President Obama — and 2009 taught us that the smartest political move is to accept, if not embrace, that fact,” Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Nathan Daschle explained.

“Ultimately, [the 2010 elections] will be about what we’ve been able to do,” said former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director John Lapp, who is now a media consultant and agrees with Axelrod’s strategy.

“Republicans left a horrible mess,” Lapp explained. “Together, we’ve either been able to work through problems or we haven’t.”

Some Democrats believe that a national election focused on health care reform and an economy on the mend bodes well for their party and that the president will be the best salesman for his own policies in order to motivate the Democratic base.

“By next November, Democrats will have made progress addressing the two biggest challenges America faces: the economy and health care,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Eric Schultz predicted.

But there is obviously no guarantee that the president, party or the agenda will be popular with voters, and it’s unclear if the White House can even succeed in creating a national election in their favor, even if they wanted to.

Obama “needs to remain popular for it to be successful,” according to one Democratic strategist.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a significant factor in boosting Bush’s standing and nationalizing the subsequent 2002 elections. Bush’s 67 percent job approval rating (according to an Oct. 30, 2002, to Nov. 3, 2002, ABC News/Washington Post poll) and a positive round of redistricting contributed to Republican gains in the House. President Obama will enter 2010 with a job approval rating at least 10 points lower and lacking the redistricting component.