Obama’s visit to North Carolina may be awkward for Democratic senator

RALEIGH, N.C. — When President Obama arrives here Wednesday to tout a manufacturing initiative, he is expected to be joined by students, business leaders and local officials — but not by Sen. Kay Hagan, his Democratic ally facing a tough reelection.

The notable absence at Obama’s first trip outside the Beltway in this election year highlights a perennial quandary for embattled candidates and less-than-popular presidents. With a battle for control of the Senate looming and the president’s approval rating deflated, Democrats and the White House will spend much of this year grappling with whether their most vulnerable candidates will be helped or harmed by a visit from Obama and how to keep those candidates some distance — but not too far — from the president.

The balancing act is a familiar one. Both Republicans and Democrats have struggled with how to use — or carefully hide — a president while his party fights out midterm elections. Sitting presidents are unrivaled fundraisers and reliable base motivators, but can be divisive for campaigns aiming to court independent voters. Candidates regularly have to find ways to welcome Air Force One to their state, without carrying off the baggage of its passenger.

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Hagan’s campaign said the senator would be in Washington on Wednesday because the Senate is in session, saying her decision had nothing to do with the president’s diminished popularity. The Democrat, facing her first election since winning in 2008’s Obama-led wave, has said she would be honored to have the president campaign for her.

But like Senate Democrats in tough races in Arkansas, Louisiana and New Hampshire, the Hagan campaign argued that the election would not turn on Obama’s approval rating — which hovers around 40%, slightly lower than President George W. Bush’s at the same time in his second term — but on the candidates, the issues and state dynamics.

“This race is not going to be about the president. It’s not going to be about just the Affordable Care Act,” said Sadie Weiner, a Hagan campaign spokeswoman. “This race is going to be about North Carolina and who is standing up for families in the state.”

Still, some Democrats concede that’s a goal — not a certainty. Like presidents before him, Obama’s standing with the electorate will undoubtedly influence some races. Even a small uptick in his approval could lessen the head winds, making a difference in a state as evenly divided as North Carolina, where Obama narrowly lost in 2012.

Fourteen months later, it’s not difficult to find evidence of Obama’s sunken stature here. After month of news about the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act, it is easy to find conservative Democrats who bemoan the core of the law — the individual insurance mandate — and it is even easier to find Obama supporters quick to express disbelief that the president botched his signature law.

“They bungled it! They bungled it! They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory!” said Erv Portman, owner of an airplane parts manufacturer in Apex, who welcomed Obama to his plant in 2011.

But the voter disaffection extends beyond healthcare, as North Carolina’s economy continues to sputter, leaving some residents jaded and behind.

“I feel like everyone is basically drowning slowly. We’re all treading water, but we’re going under,” said Cindy Eccles, a 49-year-old teacher’s assistant in Apex. For her family, the Obama era has been marked by layoffs. Eccles said she might vote for Hagan, but was willing to look at a GOP opponent. She voted twice for the president, but has lost faith in his ability to help people like her. “He doesn’t seem to be able to do anything.”

Obama will attempt to convince voters like Eccles otherwise on Wednesday as he tries to start his political recovery with a stop at North Carolina State University in the Research Triangle, a high-tech hub.

The White House says the president will vow to take actions on the economy that don’t need approval from Congress. He will highlight a new manufacturing initiative that bypasses the GOP-led House and instead relies on cooperation from the private sector.

The venue is also a reminder of how many times Obama has tried and failed on this front. North Carolina, a swing state, has twice been the backdrop for Obama’s big economic pushes. In 2010, Obama went to Winston-Salem to call for a “Sputnik moment” on investing in education and science. The moment never arrived. Less than a year later, he unveiled his jobs bill here. It went nowhere.

But Democratic allies approve of the president’s focus. His decision to contrast his economic vision with Mitt Romney’s drove his reelection in 2012. His surest path to regain his footing is to reprise that message — with a focus on addressing income inequality, aiding middle-class families, expanding job growth, extending long-term unemployment insurance and investing in education, science and technology.

“He needs to set the frame for a positive economic message,” said Gary Pearce, a longtime North Carolina political operative.

The clock is ticking. In North Carolina, while Republicans continue to jockey for the Senate nomination in a crowded primary contest, outside conservative groups already have spent millions against Hagan, largely on ads linking her to Obamacare.

In his first ad, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, one of Hagan’s Republican opponents, said she “enabled President Obama’s worst ideas and she refuses to clean up his messes.”

Like other Democrats under pressure for supporting the law, Hagan has proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act. Her campaign has shot back at Republicans, foremost Tillis, criticizing his support for state-level budget cuts and a “fringe” agenda.

Hagan may very well end up asking for a visit from Obama closer to election day. Victory for Democrats here will depend on high turnout in urban areas, such as Raleigh, with large numbers of young voters and African Americans — among the groups most loyal to the president.

Ultimately, Hagan will campaign with the president, Pearce predicted. “For one thing, everybody’s going to want to know why you’re avoiding Obama. I think you’ve got to. I think because if you don’t there’s only tension there.”

Twitter: @khennessey