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The Globe and Mail

Incumbent Democrats distance themselves from Washington

Pennsylvania congressman Jason Altmire's television ads assert "he's not afraid to stand up to the President."

Indiana congressman Joe Donnelly's commercials tout his vote "against Nancy Pelosi's energy tax on Hoosier families."

Down in Texas, Chet Edwards trumpets his opposition to both Barack Obama and Ms. Pelosi, the House of Representatives Speaker, declaring he "voted no against their trillion-dollar health bill and no to cap-and-trade."

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This trio of incumbents has more in common than an eagerness to show conservative stripes. They also happen to be Democrats.

And they have plenty of company in caucus. When Democrats aren't entirely mum about their party affiliation, those running in the Nov. 2 midterm elections are openly critical of their leaders.

Chalk it up to the President's tattered coattails.

There are only two kinds of Democrats willing to associate themselves with Mr. Obama this year. There are those, like Ms. Pelosi, who represent reliably liberal districts (she's from San Francisco). And there are African-Americans, a group for whom the President remains a rock star.

St. Peter denied Jesus only three times. But with 19 days to go before the vote, "Barack who?" is an increasingly common Democratic refrain.

There is no mystery to this. Mr. Obama, and especially Ms. Pelosi, are liabilities for Democrats with real races on their hands. And there hasn't been this many endangered Democratic incumbents since Bill Clinton's first midterm test in 1994.

Mr. Obama is not the first president to suffer the indignity of being disavowed - if only temporarily - by his "allies" in Congress. Nor is Ms. Pelosi the first Speaker to be used (and not in a good way) as a campaign device by members of her own caucus.

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"It's a common practice in midterm elections, especially when the economy is not very strong," University of Pittsburgh political science professor George Krause noted in an interview.

"The extent to which Democratic candidates are willing to go against Speaker Pelosi and President Obama is a function of how far they have to reach to win their district or state. Somebody like Chet Edwards has to dig deeper into red territory."

Mr. Edwards, whose Texas district happens to include George W. Bush's Crawford ranch, has served two decades in Congress and managed to withstand Republican waves in 2000 and 2004. In 2008, he campaigned side by side with Mr. Obama during the Democratic primary and Ms. Pelosi touted him as a potential vice-presidential running mate.

This year, Mr. Edwards wants nothing to do with either of them. His disavowal of his party's leadership might not do him any good. Political oddsmaker and blogger Nate Silver estimates there is a 95-per-cent chance Mr. Edwards will lose on Nov. 2 to Republican Bill Flores.

Mr. Edwards might not have felt the need to so aggressively disassociate himself from the Democratic agenda if Mr. Flores' ads hadn't focused so much on tying him to it.

"If Republicans hadn't made Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama the boogeyman in this campaign, then moderate and conservative Democrats would not have to be distancing themselves so much from the President and the Speaker," explained Jon Bond, a political science professor at Texas A&M University.

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Indeed, the Republican goal has been to "nationalize" the midterms, presenting the vote as a referendum on the President and Ms. Pelosi. Democrats in swing districts have sought to focus on local issues - though, as Mr. Edwards demonstrates, that has not always been possible.

The local approach worked for Pennsylvania Democrat Mark Critz, who won a special election to fill the late John Murtha's House seat in May. Republican attempts to tie Mr. Critz to Ms. Pelosi bombed.

Unfortunately for Democrats, the Speaker and President have only grown more unpopular since then. Mr. Obama's approval rating among white Americans is at 36 per cent, according to the latest Gallup survey, and swing districts tend to be overwhelmingly white. Three times more voters have an unfavourable impression of Ms. Pelosi than a favourable one, according to a CBS News poll last week.

Neither Mr. Obama nor Ms. Pelosi takes the intraparty criticism personally. Indeed, they are the first to encourage it, if that's what some Democrats need to do to win on Nov. 2.

Joe Manchin, however, may be stretching the limits of their indulgence. The West Virginia governor, running to fill the late Robert Byrd's Senate seat, launched a TV ad this week entitled "Dead Aim."

It shows him loading a rifle and promising to repeal "the bad parts of ObamaCare." The ad ends with the candidate from the coal-dependent state shooting a hole - literally - through the climate change bill passed by the House under Ms. Pelosi's leadership.

Mr. Manchin is proof of one thing. Even if Democrats hold onto Congress on Nov. 2, the second half of Mr. Obama's mandate will be no more of a picnic for the embattled President than the first half.

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