Can Bill Clinton save the Senate for Democrats?
With barely a month to go until the midterm elections, and President Obama's coattails looking more and more like a lead weight, vulnerable Democrats across the country are turning to former President Bill Clinton to appeal to red-state voters. And some analysts are calling on him to do even more. Here's Brent Budowsky at The Hill:
My advice to the Democratic Party for the close of the midterm elections would be for Clinton to tape a series of 3- to 5-minute videos supporting top Democratic Senate candidates, in addition to personally campaigning for them. [...]
[T]he party should bring the appealing and optimistic Clinton message to the widest circle of voters in the largest number of states. It could be a decisive advantage for Democrats that the most believable political referee in the nation supports the plays of the home team in the closing minutes of a tie game. [The Hill]
This isn't the first time Democrats have looked to Bubba to bail them out. After all, it was the "explainer in chief" who seemed to make the argument for President Obama's re-election better than anyone — remember that stemwinder at the 2012 convention? — and if the Democrats are able to preserve their Senate majority in 2014, Bill Clinton will once again deserve much of the credit.
Next week, Clinton will return to Arkansas to headline a series of rallies for several candidates, including Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who is attempting to fend off a tough challenge from GOP Rep. Tom Cotton. Mounting evidence indicates that Pryor is in deep trouble, with most polls showing Cotton narrowly ahead. But Clinton's potential appeal in Arkansas is even stronger than elsewhere: After all, he was governor for a dozen years, and the state is home to his presidential library. (And as Patricia Murphy notes, he has an additional incentive: "Winning in November would not only mean victory for his friends, but also for his own legacy, preserving the brand of Southern progressive politics he has championed and installing Clinton allies in important statewide slots ahead of a potential 2016 presidential bid for Hillary Clinton.")
So an all-Bill, all-the-time strategy is a no-brainer for Dems and the Clintons, right? Well, not necessarily.
First, Clinton can't necessarily just deliver Arkansas. He couldn't do it for Al Gore in 2000. And he campaigned hard for then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010 — even appearing in a hard-hitting campaign ad for her. She got crushed by 20 points.
Look no one believes Pryor will lose by such a wide margin. But Lincoln's loss should put the Clinton visit in context.
Still, as Todd Purdum at Politico Magazine recently noted, "There is more demand for Bill Clinton on the campaign trail than for any other single figure in either party — including President Obama."
And the fact that President Clinton — once mired in scandal himself, once shunned by his own party — has emerged as the most sought after surrogate is quite noteworthy. Today, Mark Pryor might want to distance himself from Barack Obama, but a dozen years ago, he was distancing himself from Bill Clinton.
During his 2002 race, Pryor was benefiting from running against an opponent (then-Sen. Tim Hutchinson) who was plagued by an adultery scandal. Pryor (who is now divorced) was trying to usurp the "family values" mantle. Thus, he sought to keep his distance from (you guessed it!) Bill Clinton.
A 2002 news report noted that Pryor "studiously avoided appearing at any of the Democratic fundraising events that former President and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has headlined in the state this year, including a get-out-the-vote rally earlier this week." One news report from the time shows Pryor begging off a Clinton appearance, opting instead to do "debate prep." Another notes that Pryor waited to accept a speaking invitation alongside Clinton until after the programs had been printed, so he wouldn't be listed as a speaker. As Jeff Zeleny noted at the time, "In Clinton's home state of Arkansas, a Democratic candidate for Senate declined to appear publicly with him late last month. Clinton's former chief of staff, running for Senate in North Carolina, has also made it clear that he wants his old boss nowhere near his race."
So what's changed? Obviously, the passage of time has healed some wounds. You could also argue that the nation's changing views on social issues and cultural mores helps. And, of course, there's the fact that Bill Clinton is an incredibly gifted and likable politician.
It's strategic, too. I recently interviewed Daniel Halper about his book Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine. As the title suggests, the Clintons have assiduously plotted this comeback by taking proactive steps, including the building of a post-presidential philanthropic infrastructure, wooing former enemies, and, as Halper puts it, "seducing the Bushes."
Whether or not Bill Clinton can pull Pryor or other red-state Democrats across the finish line remains to be seen. But the very fact that he's the one they now turn to — having shunned him a dozen years ago — is, itself, a big story. Guess we know why they call him the "comeback kid."