Last week was a deeply mixed week for President Obama. How else to describe a week in which the incumbent won only 59 percent of the vote in the West Virginia presidential primary? Or that Keith Judd, who won the other 41 percent, is currently serving time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Texas?
And Team Obama also cannot have been especially happy about Tuesday's results from the primary setting the field against Wisconsin's reviled Gov. Scott Walker. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett handily beat former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk—58 to 34 percent, according to preliminary results—though Falk was the favored candidate of labor unions. Democrats need a strong showing from labor both on June 5, when Barrett and Walker rerun their 2010 race, and on November 6, so the fact that Falk badly underperformed cannot instill confidence going into the recall and general elections.
For their part, the unions are "pivoting fast," says Jeff Mayers, president of the political website WisPolitics. "The great motivator here ... is the goal of getting Walker is much bigger than that." In other words, Barrett's base is motivated more by loathing of the incumbent than love for him, making him the Mitt Romney of Wisconsin politics.
At the same time, Walker displayed organizational muscle: While facing only token opposition in the GOP primary, he pulled in more votes than Barrett and Falk combined.
Somewhat more muddled are the politics of President Obama's midweek profession of support for same-sex marriage. For one thing, presidents never want to be dragged into making major policy announcements. He reportedly planned to keep his views "evolving" until some time before the Democratic convention. But that timing withered before Vice President Joe Biden's mouth. Biden created a media-political firestorm that was only stoked by the shameful prejudice of voters in the maybe (or maybe-no-longer) battleground state of North Carolina.
The issue is fraught for Obama, starting with the overwhelming Tarheel endorsement Tuesday of Amendment 1, which constitutionally proscribes any "domestic legal union" in the state beyond "marriage between one man and one woman." Obama won there four years ago, and Democrats had situated this year's convention there in hopes of keeping the state. By midmorning Wednesday, more than 14,000 people had signed an online petition demanding the party move the convention elsewhere. But where to? All told, 38 states have legally prohibited same-sex marriage, while only six (and the District of Columbia) permit it. Obama's declaration, while admirable (and overdue), places him at odds with voters in North Carolina and other swing states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Also keep in mind that the issue can be a wedge for traditional Democratic constituencies. As MSNBC reported Wednesday, majority-black counties in North Carolina overwhelmingly supported Amendment 1. Are blacks going to turn on Obama over the issue? No. But he also can't afford any fracturing of his support from that group.
On the other side, national polling has moved very quickly on the issue, with only 30 percent supporting marriage equality as recently as 2004, when the Bush campaign used it as a wedge to help sink John Kerry. "Obama's senior advisers see the announcement as essentially a political wash," National Journal's Ron Brownstein reported. He added that the main elements of the emerging Obama coalition—young voters, liberal whites, and minorities (excepting blacks) all strongly support gay marriage. And there was a very practical concern for the Obama team: One in six Obama campaign finance bundlers is gay, according to the Washington Post.
The clearest indication that Obama's advisers are correct about it being net neutral politically came from Mitt Romney and other GOP leaders. While they all made ritual denunciations of Obama's decision, they almost uniformly dropped it as quickly as possible, preferring to focus on economic rather than culture war issues. Influential pollster Jan van Lohuizen, whose clients included George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, issued a memo essentially telling conservatives that opposition to gay marriage is a lost cause. The GOP's sudden disttste for the issue is like the dog that didn't bark in the old Sherlock Holmes story--a very telling silence.
The week's clearest good news for Obama came in Tuesday's Indiana primary. Richard Lugar, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, was shown the door by his longtime constituents who voted overwhelmingly to deny him the nomination in favor of hyperpartisan state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
Lugar brought this upon himself. He was schooled in the lessons of 2010 Tea Party primary victims like Bob Bennett of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Mike Castle of Delaware, but he chose to ignore them. Rather than worship at the altar of Tea Party truculence, he chose to become a martyr for old-style senatorial comity. "If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good senator," Lugar wrote in an instantly classic farewell statement. "But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington."
But the Tea Partyers also went to school on their own mistakes. In 2010 Indiana conservatives couldn't rally to keep Dan Coats, a carpetbagging lobbyist and former senator, from grabbing the GOP nomination. This year they coalesced behind Mourdock and snagged what could well be their only insurgent victory this cycle. In doing so, they opened an opportunity for the Democrats, who would have stood zero chance of dislodging Lugar. While Mourdock remains the favorite, a late March poll taken by Howey Politics Indiana and DePauw University found a dead heat between him and the Democratic nominee, Rep. Joe Donnelly. The same poll found Hoosiers supported the auto industry bailout by 51 to 44 percent. "This is a competitive race in the fall," says Indiana political analyst Brian Howey.
More broadly, Mourdock gives Obama and Democrats an opportunity to remind independents of the Tea Party's sway in the GOP and its unpopularity with everyone else.
- Mary Kate Cary: The Tea Party Didn't Beat Dick Lugar, He Beat Himself
- See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.
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