WASHINGTON – Democrats are becoming increasingly alarmed about their midterm election fortunes amid President Obama’s sinking approval ratings, a loss in a special House election in Florida last week and millions of dollars spent by Republican-aligned groups attacking the new health law.
The combination has led to uncharacteristic criticism of Obama and bitter complaints that his vaunted political organization has done little to help the party’s vulnerable congressional candidates.
The latest in a cascade of bad news came Friday when Scott Brown, a former senator from Massachusetts now living in New Hampshire, announced an exploratory committee to challenge the incumbent Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen, and when the Republican-aligned “super PAC” American Crossroads said it would spend $600,000 to help his effort.
Earlier, another top-tier Republican recruit, Rep. Cory Gardner, decided to challenge Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado; the two races create unanticipated opportunities for improving Republicans’ chances to take control of the Senate. No prominent Democrats predict that their party will win back the House.
Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress, state party officials and strategists revealed a new urgency about the need to address the party’s prospects. One Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said Obama was becoming “poisonous” to the party’s candidates. At the same time, Democrats are pressing senior aides to Obama for help from the political network.
“I’m a prolific fundraiser, but I can’t compete with somebody who has got 50-some-odd billion dollars,” said Rep. Joe Garcia of Florida, a vulnerable first-term member.
The gap is yawning. Outside Republican groups have spent about $40 million in this election cycle, compared with $17 million by Democrats.
When two senior White House officials – Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director, and Phil Schiliro, the health care adviser – went to the Capitol late last month to address Senate Democrats about the Affordable Care Act, they were met with angry questions about why Obama’s well-funded advocacy group, Organizing for Action, was not airing commercials offering them cover on the health law.
Among those raising concerns was Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who also has a low-key style and warm relationship with Obama.
“They did not want to hear about health care enrollment,” one source familiar with the meeting said, describing “a high level of anxiety.”
After the loss in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, which Obama carried in 2012, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm, asked the White House political director, David Simas, for additional help during a Wednesday meeting at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Responding to these concerns, several Democrats said Friday that Organizing for Action would cut back its fundraising activities so the group would not be in competition with the candidates for donors.
Obama’s approval rating of 41 percent in a Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll last week matched that of a New York Times/CBS News survey in February and represents one of the clearest reasons for Democratic malaise. Since the post-World War II era, that measurement has been one of the most accurate predictors of midterm results, and any number below 50 means trouble for the party that holds the White House.
In addition to problems with the health law, the White House is losing the support of Democrats on key appointments such as Obama’s nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and his choice to be surgeon general. Also last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., broke with the administration with a scalding criticism of the CIA.