POLITICS
09/18/2014 03:37 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2014

Democratic Senate Candidates Run From Obama While GOP Moves Toward His Agenda

WASHINGTON -- As the 2014 campaign enters its final stages, the two parties are approaching President Barack Obama in unconventional ways.

Some Democratic candidates for Senate seem hellbent on creating distance from their standard-bearer, either by avoiding him on the campaign trail or publicly denouncing his legislation, despite their ideological similarities. Republican Senate candidates are indicting Obama in even harsher terms -- but in plain view, they also are embracing many planks of his policy platform.

Both approaches mirror public perception: People might not approve of Obama himself or how he has handled his legislative priorities, but they tend to like his policy ideas.

The phenomenon that has gotten the most attention this cycle has been the distance that Democratic candidates have tried to create from the president. In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall (D) skipped a fundraiser with the president. In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor (D) said he would "work with the President when I think he’s right, but oppose him when I think he’s wrong." In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich (D) has run ads saying that he "took on Obama" and has pledged to be a "thorn" in Obama's side going forward.

The most notable example of this, however, came in Kentucky, where Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes recently cut an ad where she shoots a gun while claiming just how unlike the president she truly is.

"I think that what Democrats have decided to do is run an election based on their record. You can run an election based on your record without being referential to anybody else," said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "The problem is that the way that most races get covered is not from on the ground. It is from Washington, D.C., where everything is viewed through the prism of either what is happening on the Senate floor or at the White House. And I’m not sure that voters only make their decision that way."

Underscoring the complexity of the voter preferences that Cecil describes, some Republicans have themselves tried to lean toward the ideological middle by subtly embracing elements of the Obama agenda. Without much fanfare, GOP Senate candidates in close races have called for expanding contraceptive access, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and supporting raises in the minimum wage. Several have kept answers deliberately vague when asked if they'd keep portions of Obamacare.

Both Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis have said they oppose the Food and Drug Administration's ban on allowing oral contraceptives to be made available without a prescription. While the president hasn't taken a stance on over-the-counter access, he has pushed for contraception to be available without a co-pay as a part of the Affordable Care Act's preventive benefits.

"Tillis and Gardner are effectively working to take that issue off the table, saying, 'Look, not only do we we support over-the-counter contraception, we support expanding birth control access,'" Republican strategist and former National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh told HuffPost. "They're not going to cede that issue to Democrats."

Some incumbents are going further, saying they've pushed for stronger legislation than Obama requested. A recent ad in Kentucky for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), for instance, said he'd voted for "even stronger protections" than the president advocated for victims of domestic violence, though the senator had repeatedly opposed the version of the act with expanded protections that actually made it to Obama's desk.

Both former Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan (R) and Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have endorsed state-based ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage. The two lawmakers have done so under the pretense that they support state-by-state approaches as opposed to an all-encompassing federal solution. But their endorsements still strike a different note from the one taken by the Republican Party not too long ago, when even a modest increase in the minimum wage was loudly derided as a job killer.

"When Mitt Romney ran in 2012, he supported automatic increases in the minimum wage [by tying it to inflation] and he was criticized for it. ... And he has spoken out on it since. He thinks it ought to be the party's position," said Stu Stevens, Romney's top strategist in his 2012 run. "I don’t think that it’s unusual that there are aspects that people support on various levels that would be embraced by either party."

Health care has presented one of the trickiest hurdles for Republican candidates. Whereas the party has adamantly opposed Obamacare from conception to its current form, several candidates have hinted they would support various components if elected.

Both Cotton and Tillis have refused to say whether they'd repeal or oppose Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act in their states (Arkansas has expanded Medicaid; North Carolina has not). McConnell even said that his state's KYnect health care exchange is "unconnected" to the overall health care reform bill. He was ridiculed for trying to obscure the two. But the comment revealed that even he recognized the law's popularity among his constituents.

And so, the election closes with some Democrats running away from the president and some Republicans quietly tiptoeing closer to his agenda. Whether the strategy actually will work is another question. Strategists in each party, perhaps naturally, insisted it won't work for the opposition.

"You look at Kentucky," said Stevens. "I think it is very difficult to go in and say, 'I’m supported by the president. I’ll support the president. But vote for me if you don’t like the president.' We saw how easily Senator Obama was able to tag John McCain [in 2008], probably Bush’s harshest critic, with Bush’s record."

A top Democratic strategist, likewise, argued that voters would see through the obfuscation.

"I always think that voters aren't going to be fooled anyway," one top Democratic strategist told HuffPost. "Clearly the Republicans are recognizing that they can't sound like they have in the past, but unfortunately they're still stuck with these policy positions."

And then there are those don't think proximity or distance from Obama will matter much at all.

"If it was as just as simple as, 'Do you like or dislike the president, do you like or dislike Harry Reid, do you like or dislike what the Republicans are saying about national Democrats, therefore that automatically means you vote a certain way,' then we wouldn’t need to have elections," said Cecil. "We could just have a presidential election and turn it into a parliamentary system and dole everything out that way. … But it is possible that voters can make a decision about the two people who are actually on the ballot."

HuffPost

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