WASHINGTON - Barack Obama's Democrats are walking a tightrope 10 weeks before US congressional elections: do they solicit the unpopular president's support or shun him as they try to maintain their Senate majority?
The president's party is in a pickle with an anti-Obama wave cresting in competitive states where Democrats must win if they are to keep control of the upper chamber come November.
Even though he is off the ballot, analysts paint an increasingly dire picture with Obama acting as a drag on many Democrats as campaign season kicks off in earnest from this Labor Day weekend.
Obama's overall favorability is under water -- his weekly average is currently 43 percent, according to Gallup -- and Democrats are defending seats in places with some of his lowest approval ratings in the nation, including Alaska and Arkansas, as well as in a handful of others, like Louisiana and North Carolina where his support lags.
Republicans must gain six Senate seats to win back the 100-member chamber, an outcome Democrats fear would crush any Obama effort to push through landmark legislation in his final two years in office.
Some analysts already see lost causes for Democrats defending Senate seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, three states where demographic changes have led to an ideological shift that now favors conservatives.
That leaves Democrats facing some challenging math, with many of them hamstrung by a leader they most likely would not want accompanying them on the campaign trail, and with Republicans eager to paint their rivals as rubber stamps for the Obama agenda.
"There's no way in heck you're going to see (Obama) in Alaska, Louisiana or Arkansas," David Parker, associate professor of politics at Montana State University, told AFP.
Incumbent Senate Democrats are "putting a lot of distance between themselves and the president" on certain issues, added Professor Merle Black of Emory University.
The million-dollar question for incumbents like Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Alaska's Mark Begich, said Parker, is "how well have (they) been able to establish an independent relationship with the voters of those states?"
Landrieu and Begich have openly knocked the president's energy policy, an issue that has many of their constituents at odds with the White House.
They and other Democrats, including Senator Jeanne Shaheen who is locked in a tight re-election battle in New Hampshire, have also warned Obama that bypassing Congress to take action on the flashpoint issue of immigration could trigger a backlash in November.
"Senator Shaheen believes Congress must address our broken immigration system with a comprehensive fix and would not support a piecemeal approach issued by executive order," Shaheen spokesman Shripal Shah said.
- Democrats face triple threat -
The president's party traditionally takes an election hit in year six of a two-term administration.
But Democrats are particularly "overexposed" this cycle, Parker noted: of the 36 Senate seats being contested, 21 are held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans, with many swing-state Democrats fighting for re-election.
"On top of that, it just so happens the president is unpopular," Parker said. "It's like a triple threat."
One of those swing-state Democrats is incumbent Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Obama gave a speech in the state Tuesday about improving care for veterans, and while Hagan dutifully greeted the president at the airport, she made it clear she is displeased with the commander in chief.
"I have told the president that promises alone aren't going to get it done," she told the American Legion where Obama spoke.
The White House insisted Obama would not be a drag on Hagan in November. And while Obama has yet to campaign for any incumbents this cycle, spokesman Josh Earnest said the president "won't hesitate" to lend his support should the opportunity arise in her tight race.
Where candidates like Hagan and Begich will not shy away is funding. Obama remains a formidable fundraising machine, and he and First Lady Michelle Obama have filled supporters' inboxes with emails seeking contributions for their party.
Democrats are hoping the 2006 race will not prove instructive.
That mid-term election occurred in president George W. Bush's sixth year in office. Bush's popularity was sinking, and he stayed off the campaign trail even while raising millions to help his Republicans avoid defeat.
They ended up losing both the House and Senate.
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