President Obama is replicating what all his recent predecessors have done at this time of year. He is stumping for candidates who support his policies, raising money for his allies and his party, and pressuring Congress to pass his programs. The difference is that Obama has raised expectations among some Democrats that he is a miracle worker who can mobilize his vaunted network of supporters on behalf of various candidates on November 3.
The two marquee races are for the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia, and it will be a formidable challenge for Obama to push his fellow Democrats to victory. Jon Corzine, the Democratic governor of New Jersey, is locked in a dead heat with Republican challenger Chris Christie, with independent candidate Chris Daggett apparently drawing support from Christie. The GOP nominee once held a considerable lead, but Corzine has raised enough doubts about him to close the gap. Still, Corzine remains an unpopular figure in the Garden State, and victory could go either way. Even a small boost from Obama could make a difference.
The president has put his prestige on the line, trying to regenerate the old magic from 2008. Speaking at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack, N.J., last week, Obama said, "I know folks are hurting." But he argued that Corzine is supporting his policies and that he works hard, is honest, and puts the success of working families over "special interests."
In Virginia, things look bleaker for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds, who badly trails Republican Bob McDonnell. Obama returned to the stump in Virginia this week, and the Deeds campaign is running a 30-second TV ad in which Obama urges Virginians to get "fired up" once again. Obama's slogan last year was "fired up, ready to go," and he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Virginia in 44 years. If Obama can mobilize the black and liberal vote, as he did in 2008, Deeds may have a chance.
In addition, Organizing for America, Obama's political organization that is now part of the Democratic National Committee, has been working behind the scenes to boost some candidates. The group sent an E-mail last week to thousands of Obama supporters urging them to vote for Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate in a hotly contested congressional race for an open seat in upstate New York.
In the end, all these races will most likely be determined by state and local issues and the quality of the individual campaigns, rather than the Obama factor, which Republican strategists argue doesn't really exist because they say Obama simply can't transfer his support to anyone else. But such off-year elections can illuminate the voters' moods, and strategists of both parties will be reading the tea leaves to determine trends for the 2010 elections, when the House and Senate will be up for grabs. The governor's races are considered particularly important because of the size of the states and the diversity of the electorates there. "If the Democrats lose both, at the very least it will tell us we don't have the same wind at our backs that we had in 2006 and 2008," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.
GOP strategists say the handwriting is on the wall. "There is an increasing disapproval and opposition" to the policies of Obama and congressional Democrats, including "fiscal irresponsibility" and government-run healthcare, says Gail Gitcho, press secretary for the Republican National Committee.
Obama also has been raising stacks of money for his party, an important function for any incumbent president. He has been the featured speaker at more than 20 fundraisers so far in his presidency, pulling in many millions of dollars. And he has used these occasions to rally support for his agenda, ranging from healthcare legislation to measures designed to stabilize the financial industry. "It now falls to us," Obama said at a $30,000-per-couple fundraiser in New York last week. "I hope that everybody here is willing to recapture that sense of excitement that comes from a big but achievable challenge—not a superficial excitement that comes from Election Day but an excitement that comes from knowing we took on something that had to be taken on."