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.

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.

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.

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.”

National Republicans are also getting into the Senate primary act. In Florida, the national establishment prefers moderate Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who has announced for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Mel Martinez (R). But some powerful local Republicans – including former Gov. Jeb Bush and the Club for Growth – are saying not so fast. They’re backing the more conservative Marco Rubio, former state House speaker.

A good track record for central casting

Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York set the modern standard for direct involvement in picking winners in primaries, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in both 2006 and 2008 – and he has the track record to justify it. In both cycles, the Democrats picked up multiple seats, taking control of the Senate in 2006 and building on their majority in 2008.

The Obama White House is shy about fully disclosing its actions in trying to shape races. When asked at a Monitor breakfast June 25 about President Obama’s recent meeting with Ms. Madigan, who he knows from their days in the Illinois state Senate, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said: “What happens in the Oval stays in the Oval,” referring to the Oval Office.

But Mr. Emanuel, who ran the Democrats’ successful House recruitment effort when he was a member, made clear his view of Madigan’s potential in the Illinois Senate race. “She’s the most popular figure in the state of Illinos,” he said, calling her “the 800-pound gorilla” in the race.

Peril for Specter, newly minted Democrat

In Pennsylvania, the Democratic establishment tried to scare off primary challengers to Senator Specter, having gotten him to switch to their team. Gov. Ed Rendell, in an MSNBC interview May 29, said Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania “would get killed” if he ran against Specter in next May’s primary. But Congressman Sestak has all but formally announced that he’s running anyway, and analysts say he could win. Specter’s popularity in Pennsylvania has plummeted since he switched parties.

In New York, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) is also defying her party’s establishment in deciding to run against the incumbent Senator Gillibrand. But she is standing on principle, declaring that New Yorkers have the right to make their own decision. “People around the world watched and were inspired as people in Iran risked their lives to vote,” she said in the July 2 New York Times. “New Yorkers deserve the same.”

If Sestak or Congresswoman Maloney wins the primary, it would be an embarrassment to the Obama White House. But if they win their races in November 2010, keeping those seats in Democratic hands, Obama would probably forgive them.

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