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Democrats plan to win, with or without Obama

Some House Democrats say Barack Obama being at the top of the ticket will help them win their districts, but others are running their own campaigns, and have plans to survive if he loses.
Image:  Barack Obama
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama arrives at a rally in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Nevada has five electoral votes.Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images
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For Democratic members of Congress, life will go on after Jan. 20, 2009 — with or without a President Barack Obama.

Some House Democrats say Obama's ticket will help them win their districts, while others are running their own campaigns with plans to survive if he loses.

Asked if Obama is a factor in his House race in western Pennsylvania’s 4th Congressional District, Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., said, “I don’t think the top of the ticket is going to matter.”

It appears to be Altmire's way of diplomatically distancing himself from the Democratic presidential nominee.

On Election Day, Altmire will be facing the Republican he defeated in 2006, former Rep. Melissa Hart. “We’re both pretty well known in the district. I think the race is going to be won or lost by us, not by who’s on top of the ticket,” Altmire said.

President Bush carried Altmire’s district with 54 percent of the vote in 2004.

Altmire's race is rated “Lean Democratic” by the non-partisan Cook Political Report. That category designation — closest to a “Toss Up” in Cook's rating system — means that the district is competitive turf for both parties.

Only eight of the 235 seats now held by Democrats are rated as “Toss Ups” by the Cook Political Report.

House Democrats who were among the earliest and most vocal Obama supporters — such as Rep. David Loebsack of Iowa and Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida — tend to come from safe Democratic districts.

In those areas, extra Obama enthusiasm won’t affect the congressional outcome, they’ll simply be icing on the already baked victory cake.

In some of the more competitive districts, Democrats do welcome the potential energy boost, but plan to win even if Obama fervor on Election Day proves to be less than expected.

In southern Minnesota’s mostly rural 1st Congressional District, first-term Democrat Tim Walz said he’s concentrating on his own economic message.

“People are talking about a secure job, a pension that is going to be there, health care. It’s a message I’ve been talking about basically my whole life,” Walz said.

“In the presidential race, it is going to be who defines themselves best as supporting the middle class. I think Sen. Obama has done a good job of that,” he said.

Obama effect in rural Minnesota
And does Obama affect Walz’s race?

Walz paused for a moment and then said, “You know, I don’t think there is an impact ... we’ve been out there an awful lot where people see me as the representative from southern Minnesota and the national race is the national race.”

Walz has built his own grassroots organization. “If the presidential campaign comes in on top of that and does more, the better for all of us, but if not, we’re still not counting on that,” he said.

Bush carried Walz’s district in 2004 with 51 percent. The Cook Political Report rates the Walz contest against Republican Brian Davis as “Likely Democratic.”

Another first-term Democrat, Rep. Tim Mahoney of Florida, whose race Cook rates as “Lean Democratic,” said in his district, which Bush carried with 54 percent, Obama is gaining strength.

“In the polls I’ve been doing, he’s improving,” Mahoney said. “He’s still behind, but the margin is narrowing. He’s got a big organization and he’s knocking on doors every night and he’s making sure the Democrats come out. My campaign is focusing on independents and moderate Republicans, so it’s been very synergistic. He’s bringing out the base and I’m focused on independents and moderate Republicans.”

He added, “There’s going to be a large number of people who are going to vote for John McCain and who are (also) going to vote for Tim Mahoney.”

Mahoney, who faces Republican Tom Rooney, has not endorsed Obama.

“While he supports Sen. Obama, he believes a formal endorsement would limit his independence and his ability to work with either an Obama administration or a McCain administration,” said Mahoney campaign spokesman Marc Goldberg.

The common factors in the places where Democratic candidates are putting some distance between themselves and Obama? They're predominantly rural and were won by Bush in 2004.

“There’s no doubt Democrats are running from Obama, particularly in Republican-leaning districts,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

He cited as examples Mahoney and Rep. Chris Carney of Pennsylvania, who also has not endorsed Obama.

Carney's GOP opponent, Chris Hackett, is running a television ad against Carney alleging that his voting record is “more liberal than Obama’s.”

African-American voter surge?
“I believe Obama’s candidacy is of great benefit to me because my district is 33 percent African American (in voter registration), the third largest African-American population for any Republican-held seat in the country,” said Democrat Josh Segall, who is trying to unseat Republican incumbent Rep. Mike Rogers in Alabama’s Third Congressional District.

“We think there could be 20,000 more African-American votes because of that and people are pretty excited about it.”

Rogers “has not tried to link me to Obama,” Segall said. “He’s just tried to call me a liberal, which is the same sort of thing as trying to link me to Obama. My opponent claims that half my (campaign) money comes from New York and Hollywood. That’s not true, but that’s just a way of saying ‘this person is an arrogant liberal who believes he can enforce his values and ideas on you even though he’s not from around here’.”

(Segall notes that he was born and raised in the district.)

“This year, that sort of argument is not going to carry as much sway. People want to know who has a plan to fix the economy,” Segall said. He said he’d get federal money to build bridges, roads and other infrastructure so the district could grow economically.

But he added, “I wouldn’t link myself with Obama in terms of what I think we need to do to fix the economy. I think the biggest problem is that we have a country that has abandoned rural economies.”

“People tend to look for specific solutions if they can get them, and one of the criticisms you hear of Obama is that people don’t feel like his solutions are that clear to them,” Segall said. “But we try to be as clear as possible about what I would do to make the economy strong again — and I think people appreciate that specificity.”

As in Segall’s race, in Democrat Rob Miller’s race against Republican Rep. Joe Wilson in South Carolina, increased African-American turnout might benefit the challenger.

But the NRCC’s Spain said “these are steep uphill climbs for Democrats, particularly in Wilson’s district.”