Michelle Obama goes where her husband dare not tread in these last days before the midterm elections.
Few Democrats this year want President Barack Obama to come campaign for them, as his approval ratings have sunk. Many in close contests, particularly in Republican-leaning states where the president is even less popular, are actually working to distance themselves from him.
But the first lady is very popular, and she’s welcomed with open arms in states such as Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin and now Colorado.
At stops in and around Denver on Thursday, she worked to rally the Democratic base to turn out for embattled Democrats such as Sen. Mark Udall and beat back strong challenges from the Republicans.
“When we stay home, they win,” she told about 1,500 people jammed into Denver’s Exdo center.
Turnout among young voters and minorities was instrumental in electing Barack Obama, his wife noted, but in the 2010 midterm elections, many of those voters stayed home and Republicans did well.
“Too many of our people just tuned out, and that’s what folks on the other side are counting on this year,” Michelle Obama said.
Candidates may be reluctant to have her husband visit, but his wife was unapologetic.
“While yes, I’m his wife. I love him. I am proud of my husband. He is doing a phenomenal job,” she said.
Republicans have been reminding voters relentlessly about Democrats’ strong ties to the president. The strategy seems to be working, as most independent analysts see Republicans well-positioned for a net gain of five to eight Senate seats this year. The party needs six to win control.
Udall’s troubles are typical of the Democrats’ predicament.
President Obama won Colorado by 5 percentage points two years ago. Now, just 41 percent of Colorado voters approve of the job he’s doing, according to the latest Suffolk University/USAToday poll.
Mindful of that slide in the president’s support, Udall, whose votes have been consistently in line with major White House policy, is working to show some independence. He’s running an ad about “taking on Presidents Bush and Obama” for their policies involving mass collection of Americans’ data and phone records. Republican opponent Cory Gardner keeps firing back, painting Udall as an Obama clone.
“If you look at Mark Udall’s record, he’s tying himself to Barack Obama. This is not distancing himself from the Obama policy,” Gardner said of the first lady’s visit.
Enter Michelle Obama, all energy and warmth, eager to fire up the true believers. Her approval numbers in Gallup surveys climbed into the 60s when her husband took office six years ago, and have stayed there.
“First ladies are typically viewed more positively than presidents, likely because their roles are often more ceremonial and invite less criticism compared with the president’s active political and policymaking role,” writes Alyssa Brown, Gallup deputy editor.
Whether her campaigning will make a difference this year is another question. Laura Bush and Barbara Bush were also more popular than their husbands, but their parties lost seats in midterm elections in 1990 and 2006. Hillary Clinton’s approval numbers tended to be lower than Bill Clinton’s until the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s.
Michelle Obama has picked her crowds carefully, appearing before Democratic constituencies whose turnout is crucial in close races, and her 23-minute talk Thursday focused on getting them out to vote.
“We all know the real problem isn’t that people don’t care. . . . Sometimes folks get busy,” Obama said. “Sometimes people just aren’t informed about the issues at stake in this election. Some people don’t even know an election is happening.”
So, she urged, “educate folks and make sure they know how to cast votes in this election. That’s your job. That’s what we’re counting on. That’s why I’m here.”
Her appearances have been marred at times by gaffes.
At the end of Thursday’s rally, she vowed, “We will get Mark Udall into office,” even though he already is. In Iowa earlier this month she referred to Rep. Bruce Braley, the party’s Senate candidate, as “Bailey.” And earlier this week, after visiting the state again, the White House sent out a transcript of her address on his behalf that said he was a gubernatorial candidate.
Obama has been pushing the turnout message elsewhere recently. Tuesday she went to Iowa for Braley and to a Minneapolis high school, urging votes for Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton. She’s also been to Wisconsin, where Mary Burke is trying to unseat Gov. Scott Walker, and Florida, where former Gov. Charlie Crist is trying to topple Gov. Rick Scott.
Asked why the president himself wasn’t appearing in Colorado in these last days, Udall spokesman Chris Harris noted the president was here for a July fundraiser. Udall skipped that fundraiser, saying it was more important that he stay in Washington for crucial Senate votes.
Anyway, Harris said, “We like Michelle.”