The Briefing, Vol. II, Issue 35

To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso

This week:

  • Clinton: Obama’s not on the ballot. Obama: I’m on the ballot
  • Kansas conundrum
  • Oppo-drop hits in North Carolina


President Bill Clinton is in Arkansas this week, telling voters not to “vote against” President Obama in their congressional races. Of course, Obama isn’t running for anything this year, but many voters seem motivated by his unpopularity to vote Democrats out. Clinton’s line while stumping for the badly endangered Sen. Mark Pryor, D, was, “They want you to make this a protest vote. They’re saying, you may like these [Democrats], but hey, you know what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to vote against the president. After all, it’s your last shot.” He urged them not to do this.

Meanwhile, President Obama was urging the opposite — and it’s inexplicable, unless it’s either a crude blunder or a reassertion of his power over the Democratic Party. Obama remains hugely unpopular, especially in many of the states where there are hot Senate races this year. Until recently, Obama had kept a low profile, spending his time mostly just raising money for Democrats instead of stumping for them. Most of the candidates in tough races would prefer not to be seen in public with him.

But that isn’t necessarily so in his adopted state of Illinois. That’s where he was when he created much bigger problems for Democrats by trying to turn the election into a referendum on himself.

Republicans have been trying hard and spending lots of money to convince voters that even if Obama isn’t on the ballot, his policies are. The Democratic candidates are just Obama rubber-stamps. In some cases — like in Kentucky, Alaska and Arkansas — the Republicans have found great success in doing this. In other states — such as North Carolina and Kansas — they have been struggling.

Enter Obama, who, unprovoked, made this incredible comment while stumping for Gov. Pat Quinn, D, at Northwestern University. 

I am not on the ballot this fall. Michelle’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.”

It is already starting to appear in Republican ads — like this one, in a state where Obama’s approval was recently clocked below 30 percent:

No less an Obama partisan than David Axelrod has referred to this as a serious mistake. But if Obama did this because he wants to be taken seriously as his party’s leader during his last two years in office, it is probably an even bigger mistake. He has less to fear from Hillary Clinton — who will be stealing his limelight soon anyway no matter what happens in next month’s election — than he does from a Republican Senate that will spend the next two years daring him to whip out the veto pen.  

Senate 2014

Iowa: State Sen. Joni Ernst, R, clearly had U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D, on the defensive during their first debate last Sunday, and that is probably the best metaphor for this race overall. Braley has proven to be so gaffe-prone and unlikeable that he has spent at least as much time defending his own mistakes as making a positive case to voters for his own election. These little things often do matter — like the fact that months after the story first emerged, Braley is still paying for his possible threat to sue a neighbor over some chickens

As of Friday, Democrats had doubled their absentee ballot returns in Iowa over the same period in 2010, but Republicans had tripled theirs (per Ace of Spades Decision Desk). The GOP typically trails in this metric, and they continue to trail by about 11,000 in absentees, but it appears that the final tally will probably be close, as it was in 2010 when Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and Sen. Chuck Grassley won easily, and not like in 2012, when Democrats vastly overwhelmed them.

In short, the GOP seems to be somewhat on the ball in Iowa, just as it was in March for the closely watched Tampa-area special House election in which Rep. David Jolly, R, came out ahead. And they have the right candidate at the game just when Democrats have the wrong one. An extra wildcard, possibly in Republicans’ favor: AFP’s ground game. All of this is a big change from 2012, and a good sign for GOP turnout efforts. None of it is good news for Braley, although Iowa is still a state that favors Democrats and disappoints Republicans by nature.

Kansas: Republicans are tearing their hair out over this one. It is quite possible that their Senate majority hopes will be dashed because one of their firmly establishment-centered incumbent is a lazy politician.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R, attacked vigorously during his primary against a longshot tea party candidate, is by far the most endangered Senate incumbent at this point. And if he loses, his name will become the counterpoint to establishment cries about how Tea Partiers have undermined GOP chances.

What’s worse for Roberts is that he doesn’t seem to be recovering, even though the similarly endangered Gov. Sam Brownback, R, has recently shown a mild resurgence in the polls. Brownback, a conservative, has been playing up his accomplishments and advertising like a moderate. Roberts, the more moderate candidate, has been trashing the ever-unpopular President Obama and campaigning like a hard-core conservative, in a bid to bring conservative voters back onto the reservation. 

The unusual circumstances of Roberts’ race are the one thing the GOP still looks to for hope. And it isn’t much to cling to, but it is something. There is something odd about his independent opponent, Greg Orman, that makes him seem like a possible flash in the pan — a bubble just waiting to be popped.

As an untested candidate in a weird situation, Orman is cagey about which party he will caucus with. (There is no Democrat running after the withdrawal of Chad Taylor.) He appears to have a very fluid and soft base of support.

People gravitate away from Roberts, but they aren’t quite sold on Orman. The polls tend to give Orman a lead, but the size of that lead varies widely, as if we were watching a primary election instead of a general. And one poll shows the lead changing and a ten point swing away from Orman when “leaners” aren’t taken into account. Marist found that only 48 percent of his supporters are firm. He doesn’t seem too worried about behaving like an amateur — for example, when he talks openly about switching party allegiances every few months. Such absurd comments might well arouse voter suspicions. They haven’t yet. The bottom line is that Roberts is still losing this race. He can only pray a miracle happens quickly.

North Carolina: There have been some powerful opposition-research drops in the 2014 cycle. None was probably more damaging than the plagiarism scandal that prompted Sen. John Walsh, D, to drop out of his race altogether. The second-most powerful was probably Sen. Pat Roberts‘ lack of residency in Kansas.

Republicans hope the oppo-drop will work wonders for them in North Carolina, where Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., has maintained a small but consistent lead. The oppo-drop against her probably has better odds than the average Hail Mary pass. The news that Hagan’s husband and son both made bank from the 2009 stimulus package, to the tune of about $1 million in all, could be taken as an example of what most turns people off about Washington. It will be worth watching to see whether Hagan takes a serious hit from this revelation.

Hagan’s numbers remain relatively miserable for an incumbent, often in the low 40s, even though she leads. But she may not need to get to 50 percent to win because a Libertarian candidate, Sean Haugh, who could finish with as much as 8 percent (polls show him drawing roughly equal numbers of voters from each side). Her Republican opponent, House Speaker Thom Tillis, R, has also been the target of more negative independent expenditures than any other candidate for Senate this year.