ANAHEIM, Calif. – Barack Obama’s plunge into the midterm elections on Saturday served its central purpose: For Democrats in critical House races – many of them new to politics – appearing with the former president lent their campaigns urgency and credibility.
“If we don’t step up, things can get worse” Obama told cheering activists who gathered in a crowded ballroom at a rally for seven Democrats running in Republican-held House districts. “In two months, we have a chance to restore some sanity in our politics.”
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But Republicans see Obama’s return as a chance to step up, too. As the liberal hero begins to stump for fellow Democrats this fall, his stop in this one-time bastion of conservatism comes with political risk. Republicans for years used Obama to energize voters, yoking down-ticket Democrats to a president reviled by the GOP. That’s a formula Republicans here think they can repeat.
Although Hillary Clinton carried the districts of all seven candidates featured at the rally during her 2016 presidential bid, Obama lost California’s Orange County twice. Of his return appearance, said Rob Pyers of the California Target Book, which handicaps races in California, “I’m not sure it’s helpful.”
“It seems like a gift to the [National Republican Congressional Committee],” he said.
A day after giving his first head-on speech indicting President Donald Trump’s record, Obama was nowhere near as hard-hitting, preferring instead to talk up the Democratic candidates — even if he did criticize politicians who he said “exploit politics of fear.”
“I gave a long speech yesterday,” Obama told the crowd. “Today is a different role. Today, really what I want to do is highlight the extraordinary collection of candidates who have decided to step up” in California House races.
But as Obama implored Democrats here to recognize a “consequential moment in our history,” a protester outside the Anaheim Convention Center captured the tension of his return to an area where he was never especially popular. “This is Orange County. We’re not in Brooklyn,” he taunted rally-goers outside.
Even before Obama arrived, Republicans were fundraising off the visit. Diane Harkey, the Republican running in California’s 49th Congressional District, said in a fundraising email, “We can’t allow Obama to steal this seat from us and hand it, along with a liberal House majority, back to Nancy Pelosi!”
But Democrats and some independent analysts said the embrace of a former president would bring benefits outweighing Republican efforts to revive lowlights of the Obama era.
Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., the voter data firm used by both Republicans and Democrats in California said Obama can give novice candidates “something that they lack, which is they’ve never been elected officials, they don’t have that kind of gravitas of standing on a stage with the president of the United States.”
Obama is wildly popular among Democrats, and his public approval rating has only increased since he left office. But Republican voters still outnumber Democrats in much of suburbia, including Orange County, which Clinton flipped Democratic in a presidential race for the first time since 1936. The county is now a critical battleground in Democrats’ effort to retake the House.
Nodding to the Democrats’ effort to court a broader audience in less heavily Democratic districts, Obama vowed to reach out “not just to true-blue, diehard Democrats.”
“I want to talk to independents,” he said. “I want to reach out to some Republicans who kind of harken back to the values of a guy named Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, and who say to themselves … ‘I don’t recognize what’s going on in Washington right now. That’s not what I believe.’”
Yet in a reflection of the gulf between Obama and more conservative-leaning reaches of the country, not all Democrats are rushing to his side. Andrew Janz, one of the Democratic Party’s top online House candidate fundraisers, demurred when asked about Obama’s presence in the state.
“I’m going to run my own race,” said Janz, who was not included in the event with Obama on Saturday, which was limited to the seven races national Democrats view as more competitive.
Janz, who is running against Rep. Devin Nunes in a heavily Republican district in California’s Central Valley, said, “To be honest with you, I am really focused on making sure that the voters of my district know that I am not somebody that is going to be controlled by the national party.”
By contrast, the Democrats who appeared with Obama here were thrilled to welcome his lavish praise.
“I think President Obama is a powerful reminder of what a presidential leader looks like, and that’s a contrast to Donald Trump,” said Katie Porter, running to unseat Republican Rep. Mimi Walters.
Mitchell agreed, saying Obama’s involvement in close House races could elevate a Democratic House candidate with no government experience—a category that includes Porter, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine— “to someone you look at and say, ‘Oh yeah, she could be a congresswoman.’”
Yet while Mitchell said he believes “the positives outweigh the negatives” for Democrats campaigning with Obama, he did not dismiss the risk associated with his embrace.
Mitchell said that, until now, Trump’s main political foils have been figures like special counsel Robert Mueller and some of Trump’s own associates, including his former lawyer Michael Cohen, potentially deflating the president’s GOP support.
But Obama’s return to the campaign trail—which Trump mocked at a rally yesterday and on Twitter last night, could remind Republicans what animated them in 2016.
“If this becomes Trump versus Obama, that’s a playing field that in a way is almost giving Republicans a permission structure to be able to turn out and vote,” Mitchell said.