WASHINGTON -- Following their major losses in Tuesday's elections, Democrats' self-therapy sessions have largely boiled down to grappling with a single question: Would the party’s candidates have done better if they hadn’t distanced themselves from President Barack Obama?
The data suggests that the president was a huge drag on his Senate candidates. In all the critical states, Obama's popularity numbers were lower than the Democratic candidates' vote percentages -- suggesting that Democrats actually performed above expectations, given the president's low approval ratings. (Over the past few days, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials have had a happy trigger finger when it comes to retweeting any tweet that points this out.)
But comparing vote totals to approval ratings can be an apple to oranges exercise. Even Republicans disagree about the role the president played, or should have played, in the midterms. In a post-election briefing, Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, thanked Democrats for sidelining their party's “best messenger.”
"They were so focused on independents that they forgot they had a base," Collins said of the Democratic campaigns. "They left their base behind. They became Republican-lite."
But Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Friday it was unlikely that more involvement by Obama would have helped some of the vulnerable Democrats running for the Senate.
“I don’t think so,” said Priebus in a reporter briefing sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor on Friday, “only because the president made it so clear that he was on the ballot, or at least his policies were on the ballot, that it really didn’t seem to matter. I would suppose that if the president was coming into these states that were in play more, I think the Democrats probably would have done worse."
"There may have been a couple exceptions, maybe in North Carolina," Priebus conceded. "But that is hard to tell. Sometimes you just don’t know.”
For the White House’s defenders, the argument remains the same regardless of the numbers: By running away from the president and his policies, they insist, Democrats essentially caused a political death spiral. No one wanted to defend the president or run on some of his policy achievements because they were unpopular. Yet there was no way to make those achievements or the president more popular without anyone defending him or them.
The president ended up campaigning for just one Senate candidate, Michigan Democrat Rep. Gary Peters, who was so far ahead in his contest that his joint appearance with Obama was rather meaningless. Obama did campaign for a number of gubernatorial candidates who went on to lose, including some in very winnable races. Does that mean the president was a drag on the ticket, best to be avoided?
Perhaps. But a senior Obama administration official told The Huffington Post that internal White House numbers indicated that the president would have proven an asset in certain races where he ended up being shunned instead. Chief among those contests was the Florida gubernatorial race, where the White House offered to send Obama to gin up the Democratic vote. But Democrat Charlie Crist’s campaign turned down the offer. Crist narrowly lost the race Tuesday to Republican Gov. Rick Scott.