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The Down Ballot Argument

For months, Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign has insisted that Obama’s name at the top of the ticket in November would do more to help other Democratic candidates than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s.

While Clinton (D-N.Y.) is a strongly polarizing figure with high negatives, the argument went, Obama’s appeal to moderates and independents, and his ability to bring new, young voters, as well as record numbers of African-Americans, to the polls, could help tip the scales to Democrats in some key races.

But this week — as he tries to stem the damage caused by Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. and bolster his blue-collar bona fides — Obama (D-Ill.) finds himself on the other end of the “down ballot” argument.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

Republicans are spending about $500,000 on advertising to link Democratic candidates in two special congressional elections in Louisiana and Mississippi to Obama. The plan could be that painting the Illinois senator as a liberal elitist and reminding voters of his ties to Wright, his controversial former pastor, will damage Democrats’ unusually good chances of taking what have traditionally been Republican seats.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has also launched a series of video press releases, replaying Obama’s comments at a San Francisco fund-raiser — in which he said small-town Americans grow “bitter” and cling to guns and religion in tough times — and asking whether Democratic candidates in tough races, including Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana; Rep. Mark Udall, running for the Senate in Colorado, and Rep. Tom Udall, his cousin, a Senate candidate in New Mexico, would even vote for him.

The results of those special House races won’t be known until later in May, and the video ads may be most effective as party fund-raising tools. But, as Clinton continues to make her case to superdelegates – the party leaders and activists who are likely to decide the Democratic nomination – the Republican attacks on Obama have already become part of her case.

The shift is double-edged for both candidates — evidence of the changing dynamics of the Democratic primary contest, and the tough environment that faces the front-runner at any given moment.

As Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, put it, “The irony is that an argument that was used against the Clinton campaign is now being used by the Clinton campaign against Obama.”

Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst for The Cook Political Report, said Obama’s early focus on the down-ballot races was necessary as his challenge to Clinton, long the presumed front-runner, took shape. “He spent a few weeks pretty much working to convince everybody that Iowa was not a fluke,” she said, and that his victory in mostly white state — which left Clinton in third place, behind John Edwards — could be replicated elsewhere.

To do that, Obama’s campaign looked to Senate races in Colorado, New Mexico and Minnesota where, they said, his candidacy would give Democrats a chance to pick up seats and strengthen their slim majority in the Senate.

Republicans helped fuel the Obama pitch, seemingly gleeful at the prospect of facing a Clinton-led Democratic Party in the fall.

“I know what Republicans in Colorado want” Duffy said, referring to the party’s fight to hold on to the seat now held by Sen. Wayne Allard, who is retiring. “They want to run with Clinton on the top of the ticket. Her negatives have been in the low 50s in Colorado for a very long time and it’s hard to see how they improve.”

At the same time, many Democratic candidates in the South would prefer to run with Obama, Duffy said, because he could help bring black voters to the polls. “Would Jim Marshall and John Barrow much rather run with Obama, who can help turn out the African-American voters in their Georgia districts? Absolutely.” Marshall was re-elected to a third term in 2006 by a 51-49 margin, while Barrow won his second term by just 864 votes.

There are, to be sure, places where Clinton could be more of an asset to Democrats further down the ballot. Duffy pointed to Senate races in New Hampshire, where she scored an important primary victory, and Maine.

This coattails effect has been seen in past U.S. elections — most dramatically in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson’s victory helped Democrats pick up two Senate seats, and in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s landslide helped Republicans pick up 12 Senate seats.

Jacobs said there is less historical evidence of what he called a “contagion effect” — a presidential candidate hurting the rest of his ticket. The best example, he said, may be Barry M. Goldwater, Johnson’s Republican opponent.

This year, Jacobs said he expects the non-presidential races to be most effected by the national mood and concerns about the economy, the war in Iraq and health care. “The general malaise … is going to a much more powerful influence than Barack Obama and his ‘bitter’ comments,” Jacobs said.

But that doesn’t mean that politicians aren’t paying attention to their placement on the ballot.

When Steve Achelpohl, chairman of Nebraska’s state Democratic Party, announced on Apr. 19 that he was backing Obama, he cited the down-ballot effects as a principal reason for his decision. "I’m confident that Obama will turn out more Democrats, which will help the down-ballot races," he said, "just like I think Obama could really be competitive in at least two of our three congressional districts."

Last year, the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, which Jacobs directs, interviewed members of the state legislature from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party running in GOP-leaning districts. None of those interviewed said Clinton would help in their races, and one said she would be a “very, very big liability – so big I may not even run if she is our party’s nominee.”

As Clinton continues her fight for the nomination, she may long for the days when she was considered such a shoo-in that Republicans thought it was worth the effort to rail against her, hoping to weaken her even before she was crowned the Democratic nominee. But while her win in Pennsylvania has revived her campaign, it is Obama who is now getting that treatment.

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