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The Obama Paradox for House Democrats

House Democrats face a conundrum in 2014: They can’t run with the president, but they don’t want to run without his campaign organization either.

On the surface, vulnerable Democrats in conservative districts will likely be aided by President Barack Obama’s absence from the ballot in 2014. But in some districts, Democrats will miss the president’s campaign organization and robust turnout operation.

“The reality is that there are a handful of districts around the country where the president’s campaign was a hindrance rather than a help, and in those particular races the Democratic candidate will be far better off not having the president on the ballot at the same time in 2014,” said David Heller, a consultant who advises several Democrats in competitive districts.

Amid the president’s testy visit with congressional Democrats Wednesday, the caucus’s political challenges remained clear. House Democrats must pick up 17 seats to win the majority — a tough climb in a year that’s expected to yield only a couple of dozen competitive races.

That’s because both parties are looking at a smaller House playing field in 2014. House Democrats must defend nine districts that Mitt Romney carried in 2012, while House Republicans must defend 17 districts that Obama carried that year.

What’s more, this cycle marks the first time most House Democrats will run in new districts, making turnout even more unpredictable.

With that in mind, CQ Roll Call has assembled a list of which House Democrats might be affected — for better or worse — by the president’s absence from the ballot.

Georgia’s 12th District

Democratic Rep. John Barrow has survived the GOP’s target list — and Democratic presidential tickets — many times before. His district voted for GOP presidential candidates for three consecutive presidential cycles, but Barrow has still pulled off victories, often by large margins.

Still, there’s reason to believe next year could be more difficult for Barrow. Obama’s absence from the ballot could depress much of the district’s black population, which makes up at least a third of the district’s voting population, according to one Democratic source.

Illinois’ 10th and 12th Districts

These Democrat-held districts could be battlegrounds again next year, thanks in part to their hometown president’s absence from the ballot. In 2012, Democrats picked up four seats in Illinois as the party’s base came out in droves. (House Democrats are also helped by a new, favorable congressional map drawn by state lawmakers.)

To be sure, Democrats won’t miss the Obama campaign infrastructure because it didn’t exist in one of the party’s most reliable states. But recent history shows midterm elections are more favorable for Republicans in the Prairie State, giving Democrats some concerns.

In the 10th District, first-term Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider will face a rematch with former Republican Rep. Robert Dold. Last year, Schneider won by about 3,000 votes with a boost from early voting. But Schneider performed way below Obama’s 16-point margin of victory in that district.

Last cycle, freshman Democrat Rep. Bill Enyart defeated a lackluster GOP candidate by a large margin in this downstate district. But Obama won it by just 2 points, which means this district could be much more competitive with a top GOP recruit. Republicans hope longtime state Rep. Mike Bost, who announced his campaign this week, is up to the challenge.

New Hampshire’s 1st District

Obama’s get-out-the-vote operation shined in the Granite State last year, and two House Democratic challengers benefited from it.

Just days before the election, Republican polls showed GOP Rep. Frank Guinta in the lead. Republicans say Obama’s operation brought nearly 30,000 same-day voter registrants to the polls to vote for Democrats, including now-Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.

But with New Hampshire becoming a perpetual swing state, Shea-Porter might not have that kind of support in 2014. Plus, she will face another rematch with Guinta.

North Carolina’s 7th District

Rep. Mike McIntyre ran 10 points ahead of Obama last year and defeated the GOP nominee, David Rouzer, by just 700 votes. This cycle, the Democrat stands to mostly benefit from having Obama off the ticket in this conservative, southeastern district.

Like many House Democrats in battleground states, McIntyre won’t benefit from a robust presidential campaign organization in the district. But that won’t matter so much for him because while the Obama team boasted about its North Carolina operation, it did not have a large presence in this district.

Utah’s 4th District

Last cycle, longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson defeated a top GOP recruit, Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, by a slim margin.

What’s more impressive is that Matheson won in Mormon-rich Utah with Romney on the national ticket. Last year, Matheson ran 18 points ahead of Obama, who drew just 30 percent of the vote.

For this reason, he will likely benefit from the president’s absence — as well as Romney’s omission — from the ballot in 2014. What he won’t have is a first-time congressional challenger: Love is back with what Republicans say is a more sophisticated campaign.

West Virginia’s 3rd District

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II defeated his Republican opponent by 8 points last year, while Obama garnered just 33 percent in the 3rd District.

For this reason, Democrats argue Rahall will be better off without Obama on the ticket. There’s little doubt this southern Mountain State district has trended to the right over Rahall’s 19 terms in Congress.

In 2014, Rahall’s fate will depend on the quality of candidate who runs against him. Republicans have had recruitment problems here in the past, but this week they recruited a Democratic state lawmaker, Evan Jenkins, to switch parties and challenge Rahall.

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