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Jules Witcover: Obama's relevance hangs on Democratic showing in midterms

Oklahoman Published: July 26, 2014

Congressional midterm elections, the poor cousin to presidential voting in the American political system, will take on a critical role for President Obama in November. The results may well determine whether he will become a premature lame duck two years before his second and last term expires.

If the Democrats lose the U.S. Senate, where they hold a practical 55-45 voting control with the help of Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, the Republicans will be able to intensify the obstructionism with which they have paralyzed the Obama legislative agenda in the House of Representatives over the last nearly six years.

The loss of six Democratic-held Senate seats (or five, if King decides to caucus with the Republicans, a move he has said he might consider) would hit Obama with a double whammy of partisan opposition in Congress for the first time.

It doesn’t help the president’s cause that, historically, voter participation drops in midterm elections, including among the black, ethnic and minority voters so critical to the success of Democratic candidates. Obama’s party has shown notable dedication to driving up its turnout this fall, but without a presidential nominee at the top of the ticket in each state, the effort may be compromised.

There are two basic approaches to achieve the desired result. One is to pour paid party staff, volunteers and campaign money into the Senate races in the most hotly contested states. The other is to attempt to “nationalize” these races by emphasizing broad issues that the Democratic Party, and Obama, are pushing.

In other words, by campaigning not on local issues embraced by the Democratic incumbent or nominee, but rather linking him or her to issues of national significance and to the Democratic president, the hope is to carry that candidate to office through party loyalty or issue affinity. But does Obama have long enough coattails anymore?

In 2008, his huge personal appeal as potentially the first black American president and an effective campaigner brought the Democrats not only the White House but control of both houses of Congress. However, in the 2010 midterms, with Obama off the ticket, the House Democrats suffered their largest defeat in 72 years, and with their lost majority went much of Obama’s political muscle.

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