In a rural stretch of Kentucky, voters picked up the phone in March to hear President Barack Obama on the line, urging them to vote for a little-known Democrat named Jeff Taylor.
That an obscure special election for a Kentucky House seat had caught the president’s attention seemed odd. Yet Taylor won, joining two other victorious Democrats to deny Republicans the chance to take over the last Democratic-run legislative chamber in the South.
Though he’s staying neutral in the Democratic presidential race, Obama is wading deep into Democratic primaries for Congress, state legislature and even mayoral races, cherry-picking candidates he sees as stronger while preparing to campaign in person for Democrats in the fall.
Democratic officials said Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are in high demand this year —a sharp reversal from just two years ago, when Obama was politically toxic. Most Democratic candidates in 2014 practically begged Obama and his sagging poll numbers to stay away, relegating the president to a few Democrat-friendly states like Michigan.
This year, upbeat economic news and rising approval ratings have increased his value to Democrats in the last election cycle before he leaves office.
“You’re going to see ever-increasing requests for Obama and Biden to campaign for candidates this year,” said Amy Dacey, the CEO of the Democratic National Committee.
So far this year, Obama has endorsed candidates in nine races, in addition to four he endorsed last year. He’s backed former Gov. Ted Strickland for Senate in Ohio over Cincinnati councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, and he came to the aid of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who faces a surprisingly strong primary challenge despite being the chairwoman of the Democratic Party.
Obama and Biden also endorsed Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, who faces an uphill battle to defeat former Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary for Senate. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which works to elect Senate Democrats, touted the endorsements in a television ad released Tuesday as part of a $1.1 million campaign.
In Florida, Obama sided with Rep. Patrick Murphy over Rep. Alan Grayson, a favorite of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party who is under scrutiny by the House Ethics Committee. The two Democrats are running for outgoing GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s seat.
All the Senate candidates Obama has endorsed have also been endorsed by the DSCC, a wing of the Democratic Party.
“It’s mirroring what’s going on with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, where the establishment Democrats are backing different candidates than their liberal, progressive base wants,” said Andrea Bozek, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Bozek called it a sign of desperation that Democrats felt they needed to bring in Obama to secure their preferred candidates.
Even Democrats denied Obama’s endorsement are reluctant to complain about favoritism, wary of turning off loyal Obama supporters. Tim Canova, the law school professor challenging Wasserman Schultz, said the attention actually helped because it “really put us on the map.”
“It seemed like a sign that Wasserman Schultz is worried about our campaign, that she would have gone running to the White House for an endorsement,” Canova said.
Two years ago, Democrats fought their toughest Senate races in conservative-leaning states where Obama has always been deeply unpopular. The map shifted this year to states Obama won twice, including New Hampshire, Nevada and Colorado — also critical states for winning the White House.
“The president right now is the most popular elected official in the country among Democrats and independents,” said David Simas, the White House political director. “When you start looking at what these battleground states will be at the presidential, Senate and House level, the map is pretty wide open for the president to engage and be helpful.”
Though Obama won’t be on November’s ballot, the stakes for his legacy are just as high. A return of the White House to GOP control would augur the likely rollback of many of his policies on health care, immigration and the environment. Yet Democrats say the chaos in the GOP presidential race has created an opening to take back the Senate and maybe even the House, preserving Obama’s policies for years to come.
Obama’s involvement in lower-tier races stands in contrast to his lower profile in the presidential race, where Obama is avoiding publicly choosing sides between Clinton and Sanders. White House officials said Obama will campaign full-force for the eventual nominee, but in the meantime his main role has been to attack Donald Trump.
Biden, huddling with House Democratic candidates over the weekend in New Mexico, told them having Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on the ballot would benefit Democrats in lower-tier races, said a Democratic aide who requested anonymity to discuss the private meeting. Biden has already campaigned for Senate candidates in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada.