Democrats face 2012 worried about Obama's low ratings


One Nevada Democratic Party insider offered this tip for candidates running for public office in 2012: "Don't get your picture taken with President Obama," he said.

At least not while Barack Obama's approval ratings remain in the tank, in the high 30 percent to low 40 percent range, according to recent opinion polls.

Republican Mark Amodei's runaway 22-point victory over Democrat Kate Marshall in last Tuesday's special U.S. House election rattled the advisers of Democratic contenders, who worry about persistent economic doldrums and a potential Obama drag at the ballot box.

The most effective TV ad Amodei used against Marshall was called "echo." The 30-second spot juxtaposed video clips showing her delivering the same Democratic talking points as Obama and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, another GOP target, including the famous "yes we can" presidential campaign theme.

"Democrat Kate Marshall. We can't afford her in Congress," said another TV ad paid for by national Republicans. The words appeared below a picture of Obama and Marshall together, both smiling.

Most Democrats spoke privately about their 2012 concerns as party leaders publicly discounted any fallout, saying the 2nd Congressional District special election was unique. Still, the lopsided loss -- 58 percent to 36 percent -- when Republicans have just an 8 percentage point advantage in voter registration, worries even Obama loyalists.

"I think we Democrats have our challenges ahead in Nevada given that result," said Jill Derby, a former state party chairwoman who backed Marshall and in 2006 came within five points of winning the district in the strongest bid against the GOP. "I think the Democrats have to regroup."

And there's plenty of time -- 14 months until the general election -- note Democratic leaders, who are telling supporters and candidates not to read too much into the Sept. 13 special election, in which only 33 percent of the district's 396,000 voters turned out.

"Mostly I think Democrats just weren't motivated to vote, and I think that will change during the presidential election," said Erin Bilbray-Kohn, a national Democratic committeewoman in Nevada. "I don't think the Kate thing is going to mean anything for 2012."

There's merit to the argument that the special election can't predict the 2012 races, especially since most of Clark County voters, who make up 65 percent of the electorate, didn't participate. Yet the outcome has emboldened Republicans, who see a greater opportunity to defeat Obama in Nevada and win what will be one of the most competitive U.S. Senate contests in the country.

"People are tired of Obama and they have forgotten (former President George W.) Bush," said Heidi Smith, a national GOP committeewoman who lives up north in the 2nd Congressional District, which covers all of Northern and rural Nevada and a slice of Clark County in Southern Nevada.

"People want jobs, and that doesn't mean digging ditches. You can listen to union fools all night long, but in the end there are no jobs, and make-believe jobs in green energy don't count."

Here's a look at potential fallout and 2012 strategies in light of the special election:

THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE

In 2008, Obama beat GOP presidential nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain in Nevada by 12.5 percentage points. Obama managed to split the vote with McCain in the 2nd Congressional District, despite the drubbing Marshall took there Tuesday.

Obama also won Washoe County by about 12.5 percentage points. At the time, Democrats had a slight voter registration edge in Washoe over Republicans, an advantage now held by the GOP.

Last Tuesday, Marshall lost Washoe by 10 points, reflecting a weak Democratic turnout and a fired-up GOP electorate.

To win, Obama needs to re-energize Democrats up North and the party's vaunted get-out-the-vote machine, which helped propel Reid to victory in 2010 despite his unpopularity.

Obama is likely to follow Reid's road to victory: Use Democratic constituency groups such as unions to push supporters to the polls, especially Hispanics and young voters who made the difference for Obama in 2008 and Reid in 2010. Latinos account for 26 percent of Nevada's population and about one-fifth of its voters, and they lean Democratic by up to a 3-to-1 margin.

Democrats argue that Obama will be able to gain traction, too, once he has a specific GOP opponent to run against.

Reid beat Republican Sharron Angle by 5 points in 2010 by attacking the tea party favorite as too extreme. That's the same tactic party insiders say would be used against Texas Gov. Perry if he is the GOP nominee, given some of his statements, including calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme.

The strategy against Mitt Romney would be to focus on his changing positions as the one-time moderate governor of Massachusetts runs to the right to win the GOP primary.

"He was for health care reform before he was against it," said Billy Vassiliadis, a Democratic adviser, citing one line of attack against the man who instituted Obama-like reform in Massachusetts.

Vassiliadis said while Obama is currently unpopular, Republicans and Congress have even lower job approval ratings.

"Our bad is better than their bad," he said.

Still, the president will have to find a way to get on the right side of partisan gridlock in Washington so he doesn't get blamed for all the ills.

And Obama must find ways to get people back to work with his jobs plan. The national unemployment rate is stuck at 9.1 percent, while it's 13.4 percent in Nevada, the worst in the nation.

"Yeah, we're going to have a dog fight," Vassiliadis said.

U.S. SENATE RACE

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, faces several challenges to beating U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, the Republican appointed to replace John Ensign, who resigned in May after a sexual affair and lobbying scandal. The special election in the 2nd Congressional District was held to replace Heller.

Berkley is seen as a fairly reliable vote for Obama, including backing his success­ful move to raise the U.S. debt ceiling and voting for the $787 billion stimulus that's a popular target of GOP critics.

Heller voted against both, arguing the debt ceiling bill didn't cut spending enough.

One Democratic insider said Berkley's campaign believes she can win statewide if she dominates in Clark County -- her safe home turf where she has won re-election six times -- and comes close to winning Washoe -- a task that seems more daunting after Tuesday's big GOP victory.

"There are parts of this state where the president is so unpopular that Shelley Berkley's going to have to run on her disagreements with him, and that's in CD2," said Robert Uithoven, a GOP consultant.

Vassiliadis thinks the Berkley-Heller race will come down to a stark choice between two near polar opposite candidates and political views. That could link her fate to Obama's performance and his to whether voters believe Republicans can better lead the country out of the lingering recession.

He predicted the race, which polls now show as a dead heat, would be close.

CONGRESS

Republicans feel more confident about maintaining the majority they won in the House in 2010 following the two special election victories last Tuesday -- one in Nevada and one in New York, where a GOP candidate won what had been a safe Democratic seat for 88 years.

Yet voters are deeply unhappy with Congress, making the GOP far from safe. Democratic consultant Dan Hart said recent surveys show more than half of American voters want their own members of Congress replaced -- a very personal finding, instead of just an anti-Washington feeling.

"That's just a flashing neon sign for any incumbent," Hart said.

As a result, U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and Amodei will have to convince voters they aren't part of the problem in Washington but are working to boost job growth and the economy.

Amodei will run in what will likely remain a GOP-friendly district after new lines are drawn by a court panel for Nevada's four congressional districts.

Amodei should have an edge unless he makes major mistakes or faces a tough GOP primary challenger. During his special election, Amodei successfully diffused Democratic charges he would do away with Medicare by putting his mother in a TV ad and promising to save the program.

Heck expects to have another competitive race in his 3rd Congressional District, which now leans Democratic by party registration and will likely remain a swing seat after redistricting.

Heck beat former U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., in 2010; she won the district from a Republican in 2008 thanks to a lift from Obama's presidential campaign.

Heck's fate will be partly tied to whether the GOP or Obama is on the rise come Election Day.

Nevada's two other congressional seats -- Berkley's 1st District and the newly created 4th District -- are open seats where Democrats are expected to have an edge in registration.

With such an edge, the Democrats might be expected to campaign with Obama.

Titus is among several Democrats who have announced House bids, along with state Sens. John Lee of North Las Vegas and Ruben Kihuen of Las Vegas, and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera of Las Vegas.

"We have to create a sense of hope again," Hart said of the Democrats. "We have to make the case that yesterday and today aren't that great, but tomorrow is going to be better."

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

 

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