Eying polls that show a mounting anger against incumbents — Democratic incumbents in particular — House Democratic freshmen who rose to power on President Barack Obama's coattails in 2008 now are avoiding his help heading into the midterms.
Many have put distance between themselves and the president’s unpopular policies, like the cap-and-trade climate change bill and his costly healthcare plan, according to Congressional Quarterly. But even those members who backed all of the president's signature initiatives are ready to show that they can win their first re-election bids without leaning on Obama's star power.
"You have to be an independent, no matter what," Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper told Congressional Quarterly.
The Pennsylvania Democrat pointed to her vote against the climate change bill, which she said is an economic loser for southwest Pennsylvania, and her fight for abortion funding restrictions in the healthcare bill as evidence of her independence.
Dahlkemper told CQ that that, although she would be "very happy to welcome" Obama to her district, she didn't know how much of a help or a hindrance he would be.
"I just think we don't quite know yet where his popularity is," she said. "The best thing I can do is get out and shake hands and look people in the eye. They want to see me and they want to know what I'm doing . . . I'm much less concerned about who's going to come in and campaign for me."
These sentiments come after recent evidence in several elections that Obama’s presence actually hindered the ability of candidates to win.
Obama could take little credit for Mark Critz’s victory in the Pennsylvania race for the House seat the late John Murtha had held.
Critz, a former Murtha aide, had made his policy differences with the president clear, saying he supports gun rights and would have voted against Obama’s healthcare reform bill.
In any case, Obama’s support would have been of questionable value, considering that his approval rating in the district is just 38 percent, while his unfavorable ratings stands at 55 percent, according to a recent Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll.
Voters also rejected one of Obama's handpicked candidates, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, and forced another into a runoff, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln -- the latest sign that his political capital is slipping beneath a wave of anti-establishment anger.
Specter became the fourth Democrat in seven months to lose a high-profile race despite the president's active involvement, raising doubts about Obama's ability to help fellow Democrats in this November's elections.
The first three candidates fell to Republicans. But Specter's loss to Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania's Democratic senatorial primary cast doubts on Obama's influence and popularity even within his own party — and in a battleground state, no less, the Associated Press pointed out.
Obama's poor record thus far could hurt his legislative agenda if Democratic lawmakers decide they need some distance from him as they seek re-election in what is shaping up as a pro-Republican year. Conversely, it might embolden Republican lawmakers and candidates who oppose him.
Obama's track record also raises the question of whether he may be hurting candidates he supports by motivating his foes — such as tea party supporters — to vote. Though this month's AP-GfK Poll shows Americans split about evenly over how he's handling his job, those strongly disapproving outnumber people who strongly back him by 33 percent to 22 percent — not an enviable position for the president's party.
Sestak's victory over Specter is especially embarrassing, because he won by portraying himself and his supporters as being more faithful to the Democratic Party than were Specter and his backers, who included the president, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, and other high-ranking party officials.
House freshmen have taken notice of all of these trends. Rep. Betsy Markey of Colorado, who voted against the House healthcare bill but ultimately voted for the final plan, told CQ she didn't think it would make much difference either way if the president stumped in her district.
"It's always an honor when the president makes an offer to visit. But this is a Colorado race," she said.
Nearly all freshman Democrats embraced Obama's broad economic plan from the beginning. They also bought into last year's $787 billion stimulus package that cut taxes and increased spending in an unprecedented effort to blunt the recession.
The GOP, meanwhile, has aggressively attacked Democrats for that vote ever since, accusing them of endorsing out-of-control Washington spending while failing to stay focused on jobs and the economy.
In an e-mail sent May 21 to the districts of more than a dozen freshman Democrats, Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, blasted them for "running scared" from their state's unemployment problems and cited the "failed trillion-dollar stimulus flop" as proof that they are out of touch.
But first-term Democrats may be looking at Critz for inspiration. The Pennsylvania Democrat performed better by running as an independent-minded Democrat who is pro-gun, anti-abortion and against Obama's healthcare plan, CQ pointed out.
"At the end of the day, each of us is judged by what we've done," said Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello.
Obama didn't carry Perriello's district in 2008, but the lawmaker has voted for all of the president's signature issues. He said he is "proud to have stood with him" on legislation he agreed with and would welcome a joint appearance with the president in his district — even though some of his constituents may not be Obama's biggest fans.
"It might upset some people. Probably the same people who weren't real crazy about me either," Perriello said.
Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland, a freshman from a district Obama lost by 18 points, said his victory proved that people vote for the individual and don't necessarily base their votes on a party or a president.
"Everyone views us as the pawns of things we can't control," he said. "Ultimately these things are decisions about two or three people."
And while Kratovil has staked out areas of independence — he voted against healthcare but for cap-and-trade — he sees no advantage in attacking Obama, either.
"I have never been one to believe in throwing other people under the bus to make yourself look better. I don't agree with [Obama] on everything, but there are things I do. I am my own guy . . . I think overall the president's done the best job he can given the incredible difficult situation he found himself in."
Other freshmen in states hit hard by the recession say they are eager to focus on the work they have done for their constituents.
Rep. Steve Driehaus of Ohio said that while he doesn't agree with Obama on some issues, he welcomes the president to his Cincinnati district because it gives him a chance to draw comparisons between Obama's and President George W. Bush's economic policies.
"I will compare Bush to Obama any day of the week," he said.
His home-state Democratic colleague, Rep. John Boccieri, said he has had Obama come to Ohio as part of his push for healthcare overhaul and was among the freshmen who voted for healthcare and climate change legislation. But he said his focus will be on results, not politicians.
"The face of this debate is not [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama or [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid," said Boccieri, "it was Jack Hillyer from my congressional district, who lost his health insurance even though he had a motorcycle dealership, and he sat in my office almost in tears and said, 'Congressman, I hope I can live for two years so I can get on Medicare.'"
Information from The Associated Press is included in this story.
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