President Barack Obama says he's ready to do whatever it takes to help Democrats win the House next year -- a feat that could make the difference between limping to the end of his presidency and going out with a bang.
But some Democratic candidates and operatives in the districts on which control of the House will hinge said in interviews with POLITICO that the message and issues Obama has emphasized since the election are creating a difficult political headwind for them.
Obama's political choices, they say, reflect a tone-deafness to the challenges they face competing for moderate and conservative-leaning seats.
To net 17 seats and flip the chamber, Democrats have to win predominantly on GOP turf, in districts that Mitt Romney won and where Obama and his agenda are unpopular. A number of Democrats made clear in interviews that the more partisan posture Obama has adopted over the past few months -- particularly on cultural issues like gun control, and to a lesser extent on immigration and gay marriage -- is making an uphill slog that much steeper.
"I think the tone coming out of the White House ... could probably be more conciliatory," said Jim Graves, a Minnesota Democrat who nearly knocked off Rep. Michele Bachmann last year in a suburban Twin Cities district where Obama barely eclipsed 40 percent.
Graves, who's girding for a rematch against Bachmann next year, added, "There's no question -- Obama has taken a fairly liberal tack in his second term. But I'm not here for the president. I'm here for the people of the 6th Congressional District."
Arkansas Democratic state Sen. Bruce Maloch said he's considering running for a House seat that tilts heavily Republican. But he, too, is worried about the opposition tying him to a White House that has pivoted left since November.
"I'm an Arkansas Democrat," Maloch said. "I would probably not go as far as the president on some of those issues."
The last time Democrats seized the House, in 2006, Rahm Emanuel, then the House Democratic campaign chief, wooed dozens of crossover-type candidates who could make a credible case to voters in districts that typically sent Republicans to Washington. One of the recruits was Gabrielle Giffords, a tough-on-immigration, pro-gun, pro-business moderate who won an Arizona border district by casting herself as a centrist and her opponent as overly conservative.
The district had been in Republican hands for nearly two decades, and George W. Bush had carried it in 2000 and 2004, so it had initially been seen as a challenge for Democrats. But Giffords sold herself as a common-sense, reach-across-the-aisle pol, and it worked.
But back then, Democrats were running against an unpopular Bush White House. Now, Democrats must recruit right-leaning candidates when a president from their own party is setting the national narrative. Though Giffords has since become a leading advocate for gun restrictions after being shot and seriously injured in 2011, the type of Democrat Emanuel recruited in 2006 would not see eye to eye with Obama on many issues.
"It's potentially a mental roadblock for some candidates to get into a congressional race in some conservative districts where the national climate seems more negative to them," said Andrew Whalen, a former political director for the House Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats whose ranks have plummeted since Obama was elected.
One former Emanuel aide who helped engineer the Democratic takeover was more blunt about the challenges the party faces in courting the kinds of candidates the party had seven years ago.
"It would be better for Democrats if they had an unpopular Republican president in terms of winning the House back," the former aide said. "I just think [having] a sitting Democratic president where you have to distance yourself from the top guy" makes it hard to recruit.
Adding to the complications of running as a conservative Democrat is the lingering presence of billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has essentially declared war on pro-gun Democrats. Last month, Bloomberg funneled $2 million into his super PAC to sink the fortunes of a pro-NRA Democrat in a special primary election for an Illinois congressional seat. (A Democrat closer to Bloomberg's gun stance is expected to win the general election.)
Polls consistently show Obama's positions on issues ranging from immigration to the minimum wage to gun control picking up wide support across the country. But the 2014 battle for the House won't be fought nationally -- it will most likely be decided in several dozen districts, all but a handful of which favor Republicans.
A glance at the national map reveals the extent to which Democrats must play in Republican territory. Of the 28 Republican-held seats that the Cook Political Report designates as the most vulnerable to Democratic takeover, 25 are in districts that tilt toward the GOP and 19 are in districts that Romney won.
The GOP-friendly map is largely a product of the once-a-decade redistricting process. Republicans used their widespread control over state legislatures to tilt the congressional battlefield in their favor. Republicans succeeded by drawing safe seats for GOP members, placing them in rural, sparsely populated districts while quarantining Democrats in densely populated, urbanized ones.
"The districts they need to win are the districts Romney won, and I don't think this rhetoric helps them achieve that goal," said Liesl Hickey, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Not all Democrats see Obama as a problem, however. Some party strategists point out that there are plenty of vulnerable Republican targets in suburban areas, including districts outside Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia and New York City, where Obama performed well in November and where the popularity of the GOP brand is on the decline.
In many cases, Democrats will cast Republicans as far outside the mainstream and the product of a dysfunctional Washington that voters -- even those in conservative corners of the country -- are tired of.
"Every poll shows two-thirds or more of the American public sides with President Obama and House Democrats on our agenda, and it's Republicans who are on defense in the suburban and exurban communities that are critical to winning in 2014," said Jesse Ferguson, deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"The 2014 election will be a referendum on the tea party Republican Congress's increasingly unpopular extremism and dysfunction -- and we're hearing from more and more candidates in purple and red districts who want to run against that."
At the very least, Democrats say, Obama's shift leftward has created an opportunity for their candidates running in conservative districts to distinguish themselves from the president. For a contender running in a red district, being able to say they part ways with the White House on one or two issues could allow them to show independence.
"You need to have issues to create daylight with the White House on," said Zac McCrary, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster. "That's not a bad thing."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
If there's one issue that Democrats worry could become sticky in 2014 races, it's gun control. While party strategists believe that the president's forceful advocacy of immigration reform and gay marriage tracks with shifts in public opinion, opposition to new restrictions on guns is palpable in many conservative pockets of the country.
"In some of those conservative to moderate districts, the gun debate is a real challenge for Democratic candidates," said Andrew Myers, a Democratic pollster who advises many candidates in conservative states.
More broadly, some Democrats worry that Obama's liberal tack will have the effect of reinvigorating Republican voters at a time when the GOP is still trying to lift itself off the mat from the disastrous 2012 election.
Some Democratic candidates say the answer to the Obama problem is to run fiercely local campaigns that steer away from the national narrative the White House is shaping.
"I have no doubt that the national debate will color this race," said Colorado Democrat Andrew Romanoff, who is running for a Republican-leaning seat in the Denver suburbs. "For me, what this race is about are the ... people that I'm trying to represent. And in some cases, I will be with the White House and in some cases I won't be."
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