Democrats Duck an Unpopular President

Ever had a date you didn't want to introduce to your mother?

Bill White knows how you felt. The Democratic nominee for governor will campaign today in Midland, Abilene and Alvarado. Where he won't be is in Austin and Dallas, where President Barack Obama, the leader of White's political party, will be holding two fundraisers and giving a speech on higher education — and, it turns out, meeting briefly with White's opponent, Republican Gov. Rick Perry, to talk about border issues.

"I think [White] pays a price," says Todd Olsen, a Republican consultant who worked on George W. Bush's state and national campaigns. "If you just say, 'I'm going to go to it,' you get it over with. There's not three days of discussion about it, and you don't [run] away from your party's principles." On the other hand, he notes, "the president's job disapproval rating really is something to run away from."

Obama is still popular with hard-line Democrats, but the presumption is that they'll be voting for White over Perry anyway. White needs to win conservative Democrats and independents to overtake the incumbent, and Obama is really, really unpopular with those voters. He lost the state to John McCain in 2008 by more than 11 points, and that might have been his high-water mark. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll in May, 58 percent of Texans disapproved of the way the president was doing his job. And the strength of their wrath was measurable: 50 percent strongly disapproved, while only 19 percent strongly approved.

No wonder many Democrats are finding their schedules too full to make it to Obama's events. Perry and other Republicans, meanwhile, are whooping it up. Perry will grab a few minutes with the president when he arrives in Austin. And Bill Flores, the Republican challenging U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, jeeringly offered to pay for a town hall featuring the two Democrats, just to get them on stage together. But Edwards won't be there, and neither will White.

 

"Going to a county fair isn't going to hide the fact that he's aligned with President Obama and his liberal policies," says Mark Miner, a spokesman for Perry. Miner recalls White's name on the list of people mentioned for energy secretary when Obama was forming his first cabinet in early 2009. "Now he won't appear on stage with him?"

Last week, White told reporters he won't be in town for the trip but will be available by phone if the president wants to talk. Edwards' campaign didn't return calls on the subject of the president's visit.

White is campaigning, pure and simple, and knows he's got an uphill road against a 10-year incumbent, his staffers say. He's been busy visiting places, spokeswoman Katy Bacon says, where Perry hasn't been seen since he first became governor 10 years ago. "Bill has a statewide job interview, and he has to meet with people who don't know him yet," she says. Perry, meanwhile, is trying to change the subject from Texas to Washington. "He doesn't want to run on his record of doubling state spending, doubling the state debt and running up an $18 billion deficit," she says.

It's basic politics, learned in every schoolyard and played out by adults in one way or another in every election cycle: Associate yourself with popular people, and associate your opponent with unpopular people.

"Everyone's looking to make sure that the people who came out in '08 come out again," says James Aldrete, a Austin-based Democratic consultant who played a lead role in produced Spanish-language media as part of the Obama team during that race. "At the same time, because we don't have statewide elected officials and we don't have the echo chamber the right does, they've definitely made Obama a polarizing character."

"Right now, the intensity is on the right, and they're definitely trying to nationalize this election and avoid being held responsible for their own state record," Aldrete says. That poses a question for Democratic candidates, he says: "Do you give them more opportunities to nationalize the election? Most people shouldn't."

Olsen, a Republican, doesn't entirely disagree with that. Obama's numbers right now are radioactive enough to have an effect all the way down the ballot, he says. "[White's] team is not giving him bad advice. But if you're the candidate, not going to the event hurts both ways," he says. "You get the news about it. You get your team mad at you."

Even when Bush's popularity ebbed, Olsen says, "there were Republicans willing to come see him and give money to the candidates he wanted to support."

 

The Republicans would love to have a new photo op, but it's not critical, Olsen says. "If it's not there, I can make it in a few minutes on my iPhone."

Obama plans to stop first in Austin for a fundraiser on behalf of the Democratic National Committee. He'll give a speech on higher education at the University of Texas, and then he's off to Dallas for a private fundraiser at the home of trial lawyer Russell Budd. Money from the Budd event will go to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. None is going directly to Texas candidates, though some could flow to them. The DNC has promised at least $250,000 of the money raised in Austin will go to the Texas Democratic Party, according to Kirsten Gray, a spokeswoman for the TDP.

And the DNC itself could spend some of its own money on Texas races. There is no U.S. Senate race on the Texas ballot this year, but there are two hot congressional races: Edwards' defense against Flores in CD-17 and the CD-23 race between Democratic U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and Republican Francisco "Quico" Canseco, both of San Antonio. But Obama's not visiting Houston or Waco or San Antonio, and at last word, none of the three candidates planned to be in Dallas and Austin today.

The Republicans, meanwhile, will be staging a "Take Back Texas" rally on the Capitol steps in Austin. They've been flogging the story of White ducking the president. And Perry, until he got five minutes on Obama's schedule, was lobbying publicly for a meeting, creating an odd setup where the state's leading Democrat was running from the president while the state's leading Republican was angling for time on the president's calendar. It's all served to amplify what would otherwise be a fairly routine four-hour presidential foray into Texas.

"I think it just makes everybody nervous," says Chuck McDonald, a public affairs consultant who's worked on numerous campaigns. "I'm sure they already have a photo of Bill White with Barack Obama. So it's not that there's not an ad ready to go."

McDonald had a moment like this one in 1994, when working for Gov. Ann Richards on her re-election campaign against Bush. That year was a political low point for Bill Clinton, who famously lost Congress to the Republicans and their Contract With America in a cycle that saw Democrats drowning in a red tide from the top of the ballot to the bottom.

The Richards campaign didn't get stuck in a situation where Clinton was in Texas and the governor wasn't there — they just quietly made sure he didn't come at all. And it wasn't as public a problem as the current Obama visit, until Time passed along McDonald's assessment: "We're not running from Bill Clinton. We're just not running to Bill Clinton."

Clinton's approval rating was hovering around 40 percent (according to Gallup's national polling, which now has Obama at 44 percent). It was the depths for him and for the Democratic Party. His numbers were in the can. "It was the dead exact situation, and it did not stop [the Bush campaign]. They had pictures from the 1992 convention. You may recall Ann was the chairman of that convention, and there was some handholding on the stage — [a] really good photo. That's how George Bush closed the campaign out. That was his last week of TV. ... That was the photo: her and Bill Clinton."

Democrats ducked Clinton in 1998, but there wasn't a price to pay — everybody was ducking Clinton in 1998, and the differences weren't always political. No harm done with base voters in that case. And controversy doesn't always make people run away. Republicans stuck with Tom DeLay through most of his troubles over campaign finance while he was in the U.S. House leadership, and most Texas House Republicans stuck with then-House Speaker Tom Craddick for years after he became a political lightning rod.

This cycle, White is trying to hold onto Democratic voters while appealing to independents and some Republicans who either haven't made up their minds or are willing to look at alternatives to Perry. But those groups aren't in harmony on every issue, and the Perry campaign is trying to point out the dissonance. White's trying to play it down. Obama's visit makes Perry's job easier with voters in critical areas like East Texas. "It is a very difficult situation for the White campaign," McDonald says. "Obviously, the president is not very popular in the state of Texas, but there is a Democratic political base that remains pretty devoted to him."

"At the end of the day, the base is not going to vote for the Republican," McDonald says. "So we have to court the guys we might be able to get."

White hasn't always been allergic to the president. His mayoral campaign ran an ad in the Houston Defender in January 2009 — he had just announced his campaign for U.S. Senate at that point — that pictured him between Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama with the tagline, "The Dream, the Hope, the Change." The ad was produced by the newspaper but paid for and approved by White's campaign. It's a photographic equivalent of appearing on stage with the president now; the association has already been made.

Obama is unpopular for political reasons, as Bush was. Public disapproval of Clinton was about policies in 1994, but in the 1998 midterm election, it was about Monica Lewinsky and his personal life. Policy differences are tougher for other candidates to negotiate, Olsen says. A candidate can get distance from personal problems without offending base voters. When it's a difference over policy matters, the candidate — White, in this case — runs the risk of disagreeing with Obama on matters of importance to Democratic voters.

Aldrete says this works better in some districts than in others. In the suburbs, he says, people don't like the "campaign-iness" of this kind of argument and would rather hear about what the candidates are talking about instead of watching them snarl at each other.

"I guess the bigger fallacy about this is really a belief in coattails," he says. "I think there is an over-inflation about sitting next to somebody popular or sitting next to someone whose favorabilities are down. The real question is what do people think about you. It's more of a danger for people that don't have their own identity."

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