"President Obama and his policies are the issue," said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas. "Ultimately, what we're going to see is a referendum on the president and his policies. They can't run from the fact that they have been in charge, particularly in the Senate.
"We've seen this already manifest itself when it comes to the president traveling to various states, where Democratic officeholders and candidates are nowhere to be found, because they realize the negative association with the president and his policies. The fact of the matter is, they're not going to be able to escape it," Cornyn said.
Indeed, Democratic candidates face uncomfortable questions any time Obama stops in their home states. During a recent visit to Virginia, for example, Obama did not appear with former Gov. Tim Kaine--a Democratic candidate for Senate--but Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell was all too happy to join Obama at a veterans event. (Kaine, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, wasn't invited to the official event, but he's likely to appear with Obama when the president campaigns in the Old Dominion over the next year.) Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey's campaign made a public point of removing him from Obama's list of campaign bundlers. And Republicans made hay when Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., didn't bother changing her flight so that she could meet Obama in Las Vegas last month.
But the reality is that the photos of a Democratic candidate and Obama embracing probably exist somewhere. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a major Obama backer in 2008 who is fiercely protective of her independent image, recognizes that reality and is taking advantage of it: This week, she told a home-state newspaper she would ask the president to raise money for her reelection.
"I don't always agree with the president," McCaskill told the St. Louis Beacon. "He'll be the first to tell you that. But I support the president."
Separating oneself from a president is a touchy task for any incumbent. Getting distance on a particular issue can work--think West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's efforts in 2010 to make clear his opposition to cap-and-trade legislation. But do it too much and a candidate risks alienating the base--something that can matter in a close contest.
"You all hang together or you all hang separately," is how Democratic pollster Mark Mellman put it.
Republicans find themselves on fertile soil when tying Democrats to an unpopular president in their quest for just four seats. North Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska--where Sen. Ben Nelson has yet to commit to reelection--and Montana--where Sen. Jon Tester is running neck-and-neck with GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg--are likely to vote for the Republican presidential nominee. Democratic open seats in presidential battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Virginia, and New Mexico are inviting targets for the NRSC. And even in states in which Republicans will have a more difficult time knocking off Democrats, like Florida, Michigan, and Ohio, Obama won't cruise to victory, giving the GOP three more, albeit narrow, openings.