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Complaints arise about White House kibitzing in key Senate primaries

Team Obama has picked favorites for races in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New York. Local party figures say that undermines democracy – and is not the national party's job.

By Staff writer / July 2, 2009

President Barack Obama and Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) help assemble USO care packages for US troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Obama welcomes the Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers, at the White House in Washington, May 21, 2009.

Jason Reed/REUTERS/FILE

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Washington

To an unusual degree, the Obama White House is getting involved in 2010 Senate races, attempting to shape primary contests in defiance of local party activists and before voters have even begun to focus on their potential choices.

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In Pennsylvania, the White House and other Democratic leaders had made clear to Sen. Arlen Specter (D) that, were he to switch to their party, which he did in April, they would back him in the primary.

In New York, the White House is openly backing Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who was hand-picked by Gov. David Paterson (D) to replace Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton when she became secretary of State.

In Illinois, top White House officials have made no secret that they would like to see state Attorney General Lisa Madigan run for Senate. If she agrees, the betting goes, she would clear the Democratic field – including the incumbent, Roland Burris, who was appointed to the seat by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and therefore is serving under a cloud.

Local complaints

In all three cases, some local party figures have complained that the national Democratic Party can’t just come in and anoint primary winners, in defiance of an open, small-d democratic process. But, given recent past examples of success – such as Democrat Jim Webb’s improbable Senate victory in 2006, in which top Democratic leaders in Washington helped him win his primary, paving the way for victory in the general – locals’ complaints are going unheard.

“It’s a tough call, because voters in individual states don’t much like interference from the big boys in Washington,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “Everyone naturally resents it. On the other hand, the people in Washington often have a much better view of what it takes to actually win.”