Democratic candidates would be "crazy" to try to boost their electoral prospects at the expense of President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the party's top strategist warned Friday.
"Democrats who kind of are afraid to be who they are, or are pushing back on their leaders, I think they're crazy," said Kaine during an appearance on "Fox & Friends." "You can't win as a Democrat without energizing Democratic voters, and if you pour cold water on them and think you're going to win, it's tough....The good news is this is not what I'm seeing generally, as I travel around."
Yet in the state that Kaine had most recently visited - Colorado - the party's newly minted Senate nominee, incumbent Sen. Michael Bennett, responded to a question on Good Morning America about whether President Obama will stump for him in a way that was decidedly non-committal: "We'll have to see. We'll obviously do what's right for the campaign." Bennett's comment came one day after a hard-fought primary victory in which he received high-profile help from President Obama.
Worse, one Democratic incumbent has actively criticized the president and other Democratic Party leaders. Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is seeking a third term, has unveiled an ad that touts his hard line on illegal immigration. In the ad, narrated by Donnelly himself, the candidate says he has voted to "deport illegals" and "eliminate amnesty" for them. "No no one should ever be rewarded for breaking the law," Donnelly says, as a still photograph appears on-screen showing President Obama with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). "That may not be what the Washington crowd wants," the ad says while returning to an image of Donnelly, "but I don't work for them. I work for you."
Making Donnelly's choice all the more curious is the fact that the latest local poll shows him outpacing his G.O.P. opponent, state lawmaker Jacki Walorski, by nearly twenty points. On top of that, his district, which includes South Bend and the "Fighting Irish" of Notre Dame, is hardly a battleground in the immigration wars. These facts suggest Donnelly's strategic decision to campaign against "Washington" and top Democrats was an elective choice, not a poll-driven move born of desperation or intense pressure by special interest blocs. Donnelly's campaign did not return calls seeking comment on the ad.
It was Donnelly's ad that Kaine was asked to address in his "Fox & Friends" appearance. "I'm sure you can find a couple of examples of that," Kaine conceded. "I think most people understand you talk about the issues your own voters care about, but you don't hide from who you are."
Yet that exact tactic could be seen in two other ads by Democratic candidates this year. One of them emanates from Tennessee's eighth district, where the contest for an open House seat has been ranked by political analyst Stu Rothenberg as one of the "Dangerous Dozen" races likely to flip to Republican control. (Eleven-term Democratic incumbent John Tanner has announced his retirement.)
There, Democratic state senator Roy Herron has crafted an ad that features him saying: "I'm a truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy. And if you let me," he continues, "I'll be your waste-cutting, job-creating Congressman." Nowhere in the ad does Herron mention that he's a Democrat.
Similarly, in Mississippi's first district, two-term incumbent Rep. Travis Childers has unveiled an ad in which, while steering clear of his own party affiliation, the candidate boasts: "I've worked with both parties, and voted for a tax cut for small businesses to create more jobs -- and against the out of control spending in Washington."
Former congressman Martin Frost of Texas, who served thirteen terms in the House, also ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and sees no contradiction in local candidates creating some distance from their party's national leaders. "These races, I believe, are going to turn into one-on-one contests, district by district, and in a lot of districts in the South and Midwest, Obama's not particularly popular," Frost told Fox News, where he is now a political analyst. "So the Democratic candidates have got to make their own case. They've got to say -- in the case of incumbents -- they've got to say what they've done for their districts and their states, and they have to distinguish themselves from the challengers."
Frost noted that the provocative photograph of President Obama and Speaker Pelosi that appears in the Donnelly ad also featured the top Republican in the House, John Boehner (R-OH). "It's not just the president," Frost said, adding that Donnelly "is trying to make a point....He's trying to he's going to be his own person. You're going to hear that a lot, and you're going to hear that from Republican candidates as well as Democrats."
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).