Obama warns party to focus on 2014, not 2016

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats could get walloped in the November elections. The party gets sleepy and distracted in the midterms. And its supporters simply may not show up to vote.

Those aren’t hopeful predictions from Republicans. They’re the dire warnings of President Barack Obama, who is seeking to gin up enthusiasm for the midterm elections from party activists already looking toward the 2016 race to replace him.

The remainder of his presidency hangs on Democratic performance in the November contest. If voters hand the Senate over to Republican control, Obama will lose even the uphill chance he has to get legislation passed in his remaining time in office.

“I hope that just because I’m not on the ballot that people aren’t going to take it easy this time, because the ideas I care about and am fighting for are on the ballot,” Obama said to about 75 donors who paid $5,000 to $20,000 to hear him speak over dinner at a swanky Boston art gallery Wednesday night.

Obama’s challenge is to set an agenda for a party that is not always embracing him, especially after the problems with his health care law. There are areas of the country where he can’t campaign since he would only be a drag on more moderate Democratic candidates.

“Our message to candidates is: How can we help?” White House political director David Simas said in an interview. If showing up for a rally isn’t the answer in moderate districts, Simas said the president can give candidates a boost by raising money and setting a national debate on economic opportunity.

“The president is the only individual who can really set what the national narrative is going to be,” Simas said.

White House advisers say the president’s economic agenda, including an increase in the minimum wage, particularly appeals to the Democratic base voters they most need to turn out in the midterm elections, including single women, young people and minorities. Obama will be holding events this week specifically targeting women’s economic issues.

He’s also committed to 30 party fundraisers through June, with more being scheduled, and into the fall will campaign with candidates running where he still has appeal, White House advisers say.

Brad Dayspring, a strategist working on the Republican campaign to win Senate seats, said Democratic candidates in battleground states still are going to have to answer for Obama policies they supported, including health care, and overall disapproval of Washington leadership.

“Obviously their plan is to hide Obama in deep blue states and use him to raise money in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles,” Dayspring said. “The problem is that Democratic senators and candidates in the top 14 battleground states — from Mary Landrieu in Louisiana to Mark Warner in Virginia — have voted with President Obama an average of 94 percent of the time, a remarkable disconnect considering his approval rating in those states averages just 36 percent.”

Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Obama is effective in firing up the party’s base. Israel said fundraising emails signed by Obama that the group sends raise more money than requests from any other individual.

“When the president does an email for us to our grass-roots donors, the results are just overpowering,” Israel said in an interview.

Democratic Party leaders say perhaps the most important asset Obama can contribute to the midterm is his voter network data and technology, which delivered decisive victories in both his presidential campaigns.

“We are really good at presidential elections these days, if I do say so myself,” Obama said to laughter from about four dozen donors gathered Tuesday night in the suburban Washington dining room of former Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb to raise money for Senate candidates. But he said in midterms, “we get a little sleepy, we get a little distracted.  We don’t turn out to vote.  We don’t fund campaigns as passionately.”

Obama said he feared there could be a repeat of 2010, when the Democratic Party suffered a sweeping defeat nationwide and lost control of the House. “We paid a dear price for not paying enough attention to these midterm elections,” the president said. “We cannot repeat that same mistake this year.”

Israel said the DCCC has learned the lesson from 2010 and is sending staff into key districts earlier than ever to start organizing outreach to voters inclined to support Democratic candidates who are more likely to sit out a midterm election. They are modeling the operation after Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s playbook from last year, which was based on the Obama campaign field program.

Israel said although midterms traditionally have been a test of which party better turns out base voters, they must expand the electorate this year since evolving campaign strategy and technology are leaving tradition in the dust.

At fundraisers this week, Obama has been trying to focus attention back on the present as he watches the media and party moving on to the lure of potential 2016 candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and others.

“Nobody is going to be more invested than me in having a Democrat succeed me, to consolidate and solidify the gains that we’ve made during my presidency,” Obama told the Boston donors. “But right now, we’ve got to make sure we’re fighting in this election.”

The crowd was bathed in blue lighting that made the event feel more like a gala than a fundraiser.

“Too often, when there’s not a presidential election we don’t think it’s sexy, we don’t think it’s interesting.  People tune out. And because the electorate has changed, we get walloped,” the president said. “It’s happened before and it could happen again if we do not fight on behalf of the things we care about in this election.”

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Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

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Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler

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