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Unpopular Obama’s New Gig in 2014: Fundraiser in Chief

Barack Obama’s 2014 campaign footprint is expected in some ways to mirror the last president’s second midterm slump — heavy on fundraising, light on swing-state campaigning.

In 2006, President George W. Bush served as a financial juggernaut for his party, but his public rallies in the final stretch were confined to friendly GOP territory. Campaigns in competitive contests had to weigh the benefit of a fundraising and turnout boost against a potential hit in the polls for appearing with an unpopular president.

As Democrats look this cycle to hold their Senate majority and pick up seats in the House, the party is staring down an unpredictable political atmosphere with a president whose job approval starts 2014 underwater. But even as Republicans tether Democrats to Obama on policy, the president remains a vital fundraising asset for the party’s effort to hold its ground in the midterm elections.

“Obama has an opportunity to be very effective in the midterms without necessarily being the midterm poster child,” said Terry Holt, a consultant and former Bush campaign spokesman. “His primary role will be fundraiser in chief. How you do that while staying out of the story is really the question.”

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in December 2005, Bush’s approval was underwater by 16 points. Obama’s numbers weren’t too far off from that in a survey last month from the same polling unit. It found the president with 43 percent approval and 54 percent disapproval.

Unless Obama’s approval ratings improve, vulnerable Democrats in swing states will be wary of welcoming him to the stump. More likely are visits there from Bill Clinton, whose post-presidency popularity spreads across a wider swath of voters. He’s been a constant presence on the trail for Democrats since Obama took office.

“I don’t think you are going to see [Obama] do a lot of campaigning, but there are some places — does he go to New Hampshire or Iowa, places like that, for Senate races?” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. “I do think most presidents concentrate on being a fundraising asset.”

If the election were this week, it’s unlikely Obama would turn up in Iowa. A poll last month found him with a 38 percent approval rating there, despite winning the swing state twice. It’s also nearly a lock there won’t be many stops on the schedule for Senate Democrats’ four most vulnerable incumbents in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina.

To be sure, there are plenty of differences between the two presidents entering the election year of their second midterm. Beyond comparisons of their political positioning and effectiveness in passing legislation, though, one major difference is the new world of fundraising and the ubiquity of super PACs that campaigns currently operate under.

To help keep up, Obama headlined five fundraisers each for Democrats’ Senate and House campaign arms, plus a couple of joint events, as well as 15 for the Democratic National Committee.

“Everyone here understands what’s at stake in the midterms next year and how voters in these states will be making critical choices with lasting impacts,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. “That is why the president is committed to helping candidates who share his priorities prevail next November.”

That early fundraising assistance helped the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee outraise its GOP counterpart by $16 million through November. The party can lose no more than five seats to retain control of the Senate, and the DSCC is banking on that fundraising help to continue.

“Democrats are hopeful and expect the president to be just as aggressive in helping raise resources for Senate Democrats in 2014,” DSCC spokesman Matt Canter said.

But the disastrous rollout of Obamacare is causing heartburn for Democratic incumbents and challengers. Given the nature of the map this cycle — with fewer swing congressional districts and a Senate battleground in Republican-leaning states — the president’s recent dip in approval may not change his schedule all that much.

Still, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is also counting on his help, whether it’s “with fundraising, mobilizing turnout or communicating with voters about how Democrats will focus on creating jobs instead of bitter partisanship,” spokeswoman Emily Bittner said.

In 2006, Bush’s late barnstorming tour took him to the friendly confines of Nebraska, Montana and Missouri — the latter two for senators who ended up being defeated.

According to a Baltimore Sun article just before the elections, Bush’s campaigning was limited to fundraisers until the final weeks, though some of the events were open to the press. He had attended 89 fundraisers and raised $194 million for the party.

The unpopularity of the Iraq War was a drag on Republicans across the country and led in part to a Democratic wave that included winning majorities in the House and Senate. Ethics issues and the response to Hurricane Katrina contributed further to GOP woes.

It was simply a bad year to be a Republican on the ballot, and GOP candidates and committees, including the National Republican Congressional Committee, were wary of inviting Bush outside solid GOP territory.

“The White House was calling the NRCC, calling different campaigns, and offering to do stuff,” recalled one Republican consultant to multiple campaigns that year. “How many different excuses can you make to say no?”

One of Bush’s first stops that year was in February in Indiana’s 2nd District for a fundraiser benefiting Rep. Chris Chocola, who is now president of the Club for Growth. Bush had won that district by 13 points two years earlier, so there wasn’t as much of a risk for Chocola to weigh against a $625,000 boon to the campaign. The congressman still went on to lose by 8 points to Democrat Joe Donnelly, who now serves Indiana in the Senate, but he told CQ Roll Call he’d advise any campaign to always say yes to a presidential fundraiser.

“It was no surprise that I was a Bush supporter, so it was not going to change the narrative a whole heck of a lot, regardless of his popularity at the time,” Chocola said. “But the money was sure going to help deliver my message. It didn’t work out at the end, but I didn’t lose because he came.”

In Obama’s first midterm in 2010, Republicans won back the House — and came close in the Senate — in what turned out to be a GOP wave. His final weekend sprint included stops in states the president won in 2008: Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which all hosted Senate races, plus a lone rally for a House member in Charlottesville, Va. Democrats lost all but the Connecticut Senate race.

Where Obama heads in 2014 will depend on his poll numbers and the trajectory of the cycle. But even if his numbers remain low, as Republicans predict, Democrats will undoubtedly want his fundraising help — if not a picture with him.