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Posted at 5 a.m. on March 19, 2014
Should vulnerable Democratic incumbents in Republican-leaning districts run from President Barack Obama? The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza did a good job of explaining the futility of the strategy in his Tuesday post, “Memo to Democrats: Running from Barack Obama Won’t Work.”
There is an alternative, though in all likelihood few Democrats running in swing states or districts have considered it seriously: Run toward the president. And even though it may sound like political suicide, the strategy has been deployed with success in the past.
In 2004, Republican Dave Reichert was elected to Washington’s 8th District with 52 percent in what was then one of the most competitive seats in the country. He immediately became a Democratic target for the following midterm elections, particularly as President George W. Bush’s job ratings began to slide.
But instead of running as far away from President Bush as possible, Reichert invited him to the district for a fundraiser in mid-June 2006.
At the time, this looked like a very risky proposition. Al Gore carried the district in 2000 and John Kerry won it four years later. And it was well after Hurricane Katrina, when the president’s standing was in a tailspin. In June 2006, Bush’s job rating nationally was 37 percent approve/60 percent disapprove, according to Gallup.
Reichert’s team made the calculation that Democrats were going to tie the congressman to Bush anyway, so Reichert might as well get some money to defend himself. Bush raised $830,000 for Reichert at that event, and the congressman went on to a narrow 51 percent victory in the wave that gave Democrats a net gain of 31 seats.
But Reichert wasn’t the only vulnerable Republican to host the unpopular president that cycle. On the same June swing, Bush raised $375,000 for GOP Rep. Heather Wilson. She was running for re-election in New Mexico’s 1st District, where Kerry had just won with 51 percent in the 2004 presidential contest. Wilson also won her 2006 race, 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent, against state Attorney General Patricia Madrid.
Of course, there were other factors in each contest. Madrid made one of the most famous debate gaffes in recent congressional election history. And Bush’s visit caused an additional headache for Reichert, when the congressman later boasted about getting a school bus driver fired for flipping off the presidential limo.
But the hassle wasn’t enough to deter Reichert from rolling out the strategy once again.
The next cycle, the congressman invited Bush back to the district for a fundraiser. But this time, the president came more than a year before the next election (in August 2007) and raised about half a million dollars for Reichert, even though the president’s job approval rating was close to 32 percent approve/63 percent disapprove, according to Gallup. The congressman won re-election with 53 percent at the same time that Obama carried the district with 56 percent.
At this stage in the 2014 cycle, it doesn’t look as if any vulnerable Democrats are close to employing the same strategy, even though Obama isn’t nearly as unpopular now as Bush was at the time. The last Gallup poll had Obama’s job rating at 41 percent approve/52 percent disapprove.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine Obama posing side-by-side on the steps of Air Force One with Democratic Reps. Ron Barber or Ann Kirkpatrick after touching down in Arizona. Even though the strategy worked for Reichert and Wilson, some Republican strategists would like to see vulnerable Democratic officeholders embrace the president.
But the Reichert strategy does raise an important question: If Democratic candidates in competitive contests are going to be painted by their GOP opponents as Obama’s allies, shouldn’t those Democrats try to at least get some political benefit from that connection?