By JOSH LEDERMAN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Some Democrats in tough races are returning their invitations to the Democratic National Convention with a note attached: Thanks, but no thanks.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is the highest-profile Democrat to announce she'll skip the September shindig in Charlotte, N.C. At least 11 Democratic incumbents and front-running challengers will be no-shows, according to a count by The Associated Press.
All hail from conservative-leaning or toss-up states where President Barack Obama, whose speech accepting the party's presidential nomination will be the climax of the three-day convention, could be a drag on down-ballot Democrats.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is out, his campaign said. So are Democratic Reps. Mark Critz of Pennsylvania and Jim Matheson of Utah. In West Virginia, where more than 40 percent of Democratic voters chose an incarcerated felon over Obama in the May primary, Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Rahall will both steer clear of Charlotte.
Rep. John Barrow of Georgia, a top target of House Republicans, won't attend, his office confirmed. Neither will former Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Ohio, who is fighting to reclaim the seat he lost in 2010, and Pam Gulleson, the Democratic nominee for an open House seat in North Dakota.
"You're seeing it in swing states and also in areas that are home to Reagan Democrats, culturally conservative Democrats," said Saul Anuzis, a Republican strategist. "It's smart politics in swing areas for the Democrats to run away, but that also sends a signal to independent voters that maybe Obama isn't such a great idea."
Democrats and their aides insisted the decision has nothing to do with Obama or the economy and everything to do with timing.
"Would you go to North Carolina for a bunch of parties and glad-handing, or would you stay home and work as hard as you know how and convince Missourians they should rehire you?" McCaskill said Tuesday when she announced she wasn't attending the convention.
The convention falls barely two months before Election Day. Unless candidates can raise major cash at the convention, there is little to be gained from leaving their states and districts to hobnob with fellow Democrats. The start of the convention also coincides with Labor Day, when candidates traditionally hold major events back home.
Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign on Wednesday dubbed the reluctant Democrats "defectors" and said they had jumped ship on the president. The Republican National Committee tied the no-shows to Obama's economic record, arguing that Democrats were seeking distance from promises left unkept.
"You know Team Obama has problems when some of Obama's biggest supporters don't want to be seen with the president as he's nominated to run for a second term," said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.
The risks of appearing too chummy with the president are all too real for McCaskill, who faces a difficult re-election fight in a state Obama lost in 2008. Crossroads GPS, a conservative outside group founded by Republican political operative Karl Rove, has already aired an attack ad dubbed "Obama-Claire" that uses images of the two Democrats together.
"A Democrat is a Democrat. You can't deny that you're a Democrat, just as the Republicans mostly don't deny that they're Republicans," said former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1990s.
The committee's current chairman, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., recently said candidates should make their own decisions about whether or not to attend. But Israel added that it makes complete sense for candidates to stay in their districts — where they can interact with voters — rather than leave town a few months before the election.
In the Senate, where Democrats can only lose four seats and still hold their majority if Obama is re-elected, the party's nominees for open seats in Arizona and North Dakota have both said they will campaign at home rather than fly to Charlotte. Both are states Obama lost in 2008.
Democrats aren't the only ones thinking twice about showing up for their party's big party.