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Running From Obama?

Less than a week after Barack Obama clinched his party's presidential nomination, several Democratic members of Congress have publicly refused to endorse him, raising questions about how much of a hindrance the Illinois senator could be in some conservative-leaning districts.

The debate was set off by two stories earlier this week in which Reps. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) and Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) told local news outlets they would not endorse Obama.

Mahoney told the Palm Beach Post: "I'm a Democrat, but am I going to have a pep rally or something like that? No, I'm not going to do that."

Boren one-upped Mahoney by telling the Associated Press Tuesday that Obama is the "most liberal Senator in the U.S. Senate" (hello Republican talking points!) and "our nominee is not my first choice."

Sensing an opportunity, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out press releases to the districts of Democratic Reps. Nancy Boyda (Kans.), Lincoln Davis (Tenn.), Jim Marshall (Ga.) and Charlie Wilson (Ohio) -- all of whom have said little or nothing about Obama and happen to sit in moderate to conservative districts. (President Bush carried each of the districts mentioned in the 2004 race.)

The NRCC releases take note of several instances when Obama and the targeted Democratic incumbents voted together on legislation in the House. In Mahoney's case the votes were characterized as support for "massive tax hikes" and "government run healthcare." The NRCC approach attempts to tie the Democratic reps to Obama, even as they try to distance themselves from him.

"Despite his politically motivated efforts to run away from the Democratic presidential nominee, Tim Mahoney seems to be reading off the same song sheet," said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain.

How big a deal will Obama be in Congressional races? It's tough to know until we get closer to November. But past elections offer a few clues.

Some Democrats have always found it politically expedient to distance themselves from the national party -- and may have acted in the same manner if Hillary Rodham Clinton had won the nomination.

While Clinton carried Boren's eastern Oklahoma district easily during the Democratic primary campaign, it's hard to imagine him throwing his arms around the New York Senator.

The national Democratic party -- symbolized most prominently by Obama and Clinton -- is not particularly popular in some southern and midwestern districts; many Democrats representing those areas have won by running away from their national party and its leaders. A candidate with the ideological profile that would allow him (or her) to win the Democratic nomination -- a process dominated by the more liberal wing of the party -- could not conceivably be a boon to candidates in places like eastern Oklahoma, central Georgia or eastern Kansas. Democrats in those locales are used to turning a cold shoulder to the national party.

For those Republicans who see Obama as a potential anchor around the feet of Democratic incumbents and challengers running in moderate to conservative districts, the lessons of the special election last month in Mississippi's 1st District should be sobering.

In that race, a series of ads sought to link Obama (and even his controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright) to Democratic candidate Travis Childers.

Childers, smartly, came out quickly to distance himself from Obama -- making clear that he had not endorsed the Illinois Senator and had no contact at all with the presidential nominee. Childers went on to win convincingly, despite the fact that President Bush had taken 62 percent of the vote in the northern Mississippi district in 2004.

Childers offered an easy formula for Democrats in more conservative districts: make clear that you don't endorse the nominee and, in fact, disagree with him on key issues. That is an easy bar for Democratic candidates to clear.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 11, 2008; 2:34 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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