In the heat of his push for more gun control, President Barack Obama threatened to withhold support from anyone, including Democrats, who didn’t support “common-sense” changes. But based on the political realities of this cycle, his comments aren’t likely to dramatically impact Senate races.
“Even as I continue to take every action possible as president, I will also take every action I can as a citizen,” Obama wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform.”
While it sounds provocative and made headlines, it isn’t much of a threat because most Democrats agree with Obama’s executive orders, and there aren’t that many Democrats in Washington running this year who may need to vote on legislation.
Michael Bennet of Colorado is the only potentially vulnerable Democratic senator seeking re-election this year, and Republicans haven’t cultivated a top-tier challenger against him.
This Democratic class is much different than the one up in 2018, which includes North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, and Virginia’s Tim Kaine. The president will be out of office by the time they run for re-election, so threatening them now doesn’t mean a lot.
And the three sitting House members running for the Senate this cycle in top-tier races (Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Florida Reps. Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson) aren’t likely to oppose the president’s actions.
Most of the Democratic candidates aren’t in Washington and can easily say they support “common-sense gun reform” and divert the wrath of the White House.
“It sounds like a lot of tough talk that doesn’t affect too many Senate races,” said one Democratic strategist. “That’s kind of standard with this White House; they say something that doesn’t have a lot of teeth.”
The president threatened to withhold campaign support when it’s not clear whether his public help would we welcomed in some of the Senate battleground states.
The fight for the Senate majority is starting to boil down to about seven states (Illinois, Wisconsin, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio). While Obama won all of those states in 2008 and 2012, the president’s job approval rating is low enough to make candidates think twice before sharing a stage or photo with him.
- Ohio: 42 percent approve/54 percent disapprove (early October, Quinnipiac University)
- Pennsylvania: 42 percent approve/54 percent disapprove (early October, Public Policy Polling)
- New Hampshire: 46 percent approve/47 percent disapprove (early January, Public Policy Polling)
- Florida: 45 percent approve/51 percent disapprove (early October, Quinnipiac University)
- Wisconsin: 51 percent approve/45 percent disapprove (mid-November, Marquette University Law School)
- Illinois: 47 percent approve/46 percent disapprove (July, Public Policy Polling)
The president is likely welcome to campaign in Illinois for Democrats whenever he’d like, but there is a difference of opinion among strategists as to whether he’d be an asset in the other states.
One Democratic source was confident Obama could go to Madison or Milwaukee in Wisconsin, Cleveland or Columbus in Ohio, and Philadelphia or Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania to rally Democrats this year. But a second party strategist was much less certain, and thought maybe a last-minute, get-out-the-vote event in Wisconsin was more likely.
The threat to withhold his vote from a candidate who doesn’t support the proposals might be the most empty of all, since it would impact only the Illinois Senate race and the presidential race. It’s hard to imagine the Democratic president not voting for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, even if it is Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders.
Part of the irony of Obama threatening to withhold support is that the White House has a reputation for not caring about House and Senate races.
Many Democrats wish the party could jump into a time machine and go back to the president’s first two years in office.
In early 2010, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, took to The Washington Post op-ed page to lecture Democrats on the Hill about “no bed-wetting” when it came to supporting a “meaningful health insurance reform package” and other big-ticket items. Plouffe also told fellow Democrats to “have the guts to govern.”
Later that year, dozens of vulnerable Democratic members put their political careers on the line and voted for the polarizing Affordable Care Act, only to later feel pushed off a plank without a life preserver.
Democrats lost 63 House seats and the House majority, as well as six Senate seats.
Many Democrats felt deserted by Obama and believed he should have hit the campaign trail to sell the legislation to the American people after it passed, instead of waiting until he was up for re-election.
That wasn’t precisely the same situation because it was a piece of legislation. But it set the tone for a frosty relationship between Capitol Hill and the White House.
The bottom line is most Democrats will support the Obama’s action on gun control because they believe it is good policy and the right thing to do, not because they are afraid the president won’t campaign for them.