RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama spent the weekend rallying Democratic supporters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. It was a last-minute swing before tomorrow's vote by a president who has kept a relatively low profile on the campaign trail this year. Still, whether Mr. Obama wants to or not, he is playing an outsized role in shaping the political landscape. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The rock-star rallies of years past are a distant memory. But president Obama can still energize diehard Democrats. He delivered a pre-election pep talk in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Democratic Governor Dan Malloy is locked in a tight battle for re-election.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Grab everybody you know. Get them out to vote. Don't stay home. Don't let somebody else choose your future for you.
HORSLEY: This year many Democratic candidates find their future is in somebody else's hands - namely Barack Obama's. Handicapper Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report says Obama's sagging popularity is casting a long shadow over his fellow Democrats.
NATHAN GONZALES: If the president's job approval rating was five or 10 points better, I think we'd be talking about a very different election.
HORSLEY: There was a moment during the government shutdown last year when it looked as if this year's midterms might be a referendum on congressional Republicans. But then came the disastrous rollout of the government's health insurance website. And Gonzales says that was followed by a steady drip, drip, drip of problems for the president at home and abroad, including mismanagement of VA hospitals, Russia's takeover of Crimea and the rise of ISIS.
GONZALES: I think right now we've reached a point in the president's term where voters are skeptical. I don't think they're giving him the benefit of the doubt any more.
HORSLEY: That's created a toxic environment for Obama's fellow Democrats, no matter how much they try to distance himself from the president.
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ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES: I'm not Barack Obama. I disagree with him on guns, coal and the EPA.
HORSLEY: That's Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, who's challenging Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Grimes refused to even say whether she voted for Obama. But even as Democrats try to assert their independence from the president, Republicans have tarred them with a broad Obama brush.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Kay Hagan votes with Obama 96 percent of the time.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Mark Begich votes with Obama 97 percent.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Senator Jeanne Shaheen says she put you first, but she votes with Obama 99 percent of the time.
HORSLEY: Obama himself unwittingly played into Republican hands with a speech in Illinois last month that gave Democratic strategists fits.
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OBAMA: I'm not on the ballot this fall. Michelle's pretty happy about that. But make no mistake these policies are on the ballot.
HORSLEY: Many of the issues Obama was talking about, such as raising the minimum wage, pay equity, immigration reform, are more popular than he is. But by suggesting that Democratic Senate candidates would be carrying water for his agenda, Obama made their campaign challenge that much harder. Democrats have tried to counter the president's low approval numbers by highlighting unpopular positions of their Republican opponents. But unlike years past when some Republicans made it easy for Democrats to paint them as extremists, political analyst Gonzales says this year, the GOP has largely managed to avoid self-inflicted wounds.
GONZALES: As a whole, Republicans have managed to stay out of the spotlight and try to keep the spotlight on President Obama, and that's the way that they'll have a better midterm election.
HORSLEY: To be sure, Republicans always had some built-in advantages this year. Most of the contested Senate races are in deeply red states. And Democratic voters are traditionally less reliable in non-presidential years. The political playing field could be very different two years from now. But Gonzales warns unless Obama's able to win back some skeptical voters, some of the same headwinds Democrats face this fall could still be blowing in 2016.
GONZALES: If the president leaves office with 40 percent job approval rating, I think that opens the door for any number of Republican candidates to win. If the president leaves office with 45, creeping closer to 50 percent job approval rating, I'm not sure there's a Republican in this country who could win that type of race.
HORSLEY: Both parties will soon be looking ahead to that presidential contest and deciding whether it's to their advantage to keep highlighting differences or find some areas where they can work together. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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