By Justin Wise
Former President Obama is set to dive into the midterm elections next week with a speech in Illinois where he is expected to urge Democrats across the country to vote — addressing a problem that plagued the party in 2016.
Obama has kept a low political profile since leaving office, but sources familiar with his plans say he will soon hit the campaign trail to help Democrats in their quest to take back the House, protect vulnerable Senate incumbents and win state legislative races.
The former president will kick off his push by delivering a speech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Friday. In the weeks ahead, Obama will also campaign in California, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania, a person familiar with his schedule said.
Not all Democrats want Obama’s help.
Democratic candidates running in states that President Trump won by double digits in 2016 would prefer that the former president stay far away.
Others, such as Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), want to keep the race locked on the battle between themselves and their state rivals, fearing a high-profile surrogate like Obama could distract from the strategy.
“We’re not going to use any surrogates. Surrogates are fine but we don’t need them. The race is myself and Matt Rosendale and that’s the way we want to keep it,” Tester told The Hill, referring to his GOP challenger.
Asked if she thought Obama might show up in North Dakota, Heitkamp said: “Nope, no.”
“He threatened to campaign against me once so I don’t think he’s coming out there,” she said.
While the former president remains extremely popular with the Democratic base, especially among African-American voters, Democrats fear his entrance into some battleground states could inadvertently rev up conservatives and pro-Trump voters.
“Trump wants nothing more than a foil. He knows he can activate the other side,” said a source familiar with Obama’s thinking.
The former president is “going to be involved this fall in a very Obamaesque, smart way,” the source added.
Democrats say that one way Obama can have a big impact on races is by urging infrequent voters to show up to the polls in November, something that will be a major theme of the former president’s speech on Friday.
“He will echo his call to reject the rising strain of authoritarian politics and policies. And he will preview arguments he’ll make this fall, specifically that Americans must not fall victim to our own apathy by refusing to do the most fundamental thing demanded of us as citizens: vote,” said Obama communications director Katie Hill.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), said the party welcomes Obama’s help but noted it’s up to individual candidates whether to invite him to their states.
“We welcome his participation in these races as a DSCC. Every senate candidate will decide in conversation with president Obama whether it makes sense for him to come to their states,” Van Hollden said on CSPAN’s “Newsmakers” program last month.
Van Hollen noted that Obama held a joint fundraiser for the DSCC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year.
Obama also held a fundraiser in May for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is running in a state Trump won by 19 points.
Still, the former president has held off on endorsing Democratic senators running in states won by Trump, even though he has backed Democratic candidates down the ballot in some of those states.
For example, while he endorsed Richard Cordray, Betty Sutton and Steve Dettelback, the Democratic candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in Ohio, respectively — as well as two U.S. House candidates and a slew of state House candidates in the Buckeye State — he did not endorse Brown, the incumbent U.S. senator.
Asked why his name was missing from Obama’s endorsement list, Brown said, “I don’t have any idea” but added, “I make nothing of that.”
The Democratic senator noted that Obama is likely to make additional endorsements and said he would welcome his support.
“I’d love for him to come to Ohio and help us with voter turnout for Cordray and for me,” he said.
Democratic sources say Obama will campaign with Casey in Pennsylvania, even though the former president also didn’t include him on the list of candidates from the Keystone State he endorsed last month.
Obama announced his support for two House candidates in Pennsylvania, Madeleine Dean and Susan Wild, and three state house candidates, but not Casey.
Trump carried both Ohio and Pennsylvania over Hillary Clinton in 2016. He won Ohio by 8 points and Pennsylvania by less than 1 point.
When Obama made his first round of endorsements in August, he stayed away from Democratic Senate candidates with the exception of Rep. Jacky Rosen (D), who is running to unseat Sen. Dean Heller (R) in Nevada — the only Senate battleground that Trump lost.
Obama’s endorsement in state and local races is less likely to hurt Democratic candidates because those contests are often less partisan than federal races. The GOP strategy in Senate races in red states is to tie the centrist Democratic incumbents to party leaders in Washington.
One Democratic strategist said the lack of endorsements from Obama falls under the ‘do no harm’ category.
“Both of those senators are doing well their respective states and they don’t exactly need Obama’s seal of approval. In fact, it might do more harm than good,” the strategist said. “Obama is still popular with certain folks in those states but he’s not exactly popular with some others.
But Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist, said he doesn’t think it has to do with unpopularity but a focus on races that need his support.
“There are others who have tougher races than Sherrod’s and Casey’s,” he said. “Those races are shaping up to be easier than some others…And they have robust war chests so they don’t really need Barack Obama‘s endorsement.”
Rocha said he wouldn’t expect Obama to endorse senators like Tester and Heitkamp. “Places like that, they’re probably not advocating to get that endorsement.
A person familiar with Obama’s thinking cautioned against reading too much into his endorsements, noting that he will come out with another round before Election Day.
Casey expects to receive Obama’s support and to campaign with him in the next few weeks.
“We look forward to campaigning with him, we hope, in the fall. I hope to. I don’t know what the schedule will be,” he said.
Casey said he thinks Obama would help Democrats up and down the ballot if he campaigns in Pennsylvania and noted that Obama has made it a priority to focus on local races in order to give Democrats more leverage in future congressional redistricting.
Patrick Rodenbush, communications director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said Obama has been very helpful in trying to give Democrats more influence over future congressional district maps.
“He helped us with fundraising since we were launched in 2017,” he noted. “He cut a video for us in July about the stakes of redistricting and why these elections in November matter.
“He’s going to hit the road in September. We expect he’ll talk about the issue of redistricting when he’s out on the trail,” he added.
Obama also headlined fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee in September of last year and this past June.