Former President Barack Obama went on a campaign blitz for Democrats in the weeks leading up to the midterm election, but has little to show for his efforts. Candidates in four of the six battleground states he visited lost big races, and those who succeeded in the other two led comfortably in the polls before he showed up, with the exception of one gubernatorial race.
The press touted his campaign push, which began in his home state of Illinois and continued into the battlegrounds of Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Georgia, as well as some relatively safe blue states, including California, Pennsylvania, and New York.
The high-profile effort was atypical for a former president, and some Democratic candidates and operatives expressed concern ahead of the election that his presence in battleground states would merely rile up the Republican base and Trump supporters, or make the race about national politics to the disadvantage of the Democratic candidates in some races. Nevertheless, his spokeswoman promised an “aggressive” effort to turn out the Democrat vote in Senate, House, and gubernatorial races. Now that the votes are (mostly) counted, it seems the naysayers were right.
Most notably, Democrat Richard Cordray failed to wrest the governor’s mansion from Republican control in Ohio — a top priority for Democrats in a state Obama won twice as president. Cordray is a protege of leading Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and directed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (her pet agency) during the Obama administration. A victory here would have demonstrated Democrats can still compete in the state, which has been controlled by Republicans since 2010, but Warren and Obama’s efforts were not enough to help him defeat Republican Mike DeWine.
In Florida, two candidates Obama campaigned for unexpectedly lost two huge races. It appears incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson was unseated by Republican Rick Scott (due to the close vote totals a recount is likely), and Democrat Andrew Gillum lost the governor’s race to Republican Ron DeSantis.
Obama also campaigned for Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in a key Indiana race, but Donnelly lost his seat to Republican challenger Mike Braun. Obama’s campaigning on behalf of Democrat Stacey Abrams appears to have failed in Georgia, where Republican Brian Kemp has declared himself the winner of a hotly contested gubernatorial race. Abrams has so far refused to concede and promised to fight the result as long as possible, although Kemp had a percentage-and-a-half lead on her with 100 percent of precincts reporting on election night.
Democrats were particularly disappointed by the minority turnout in Georgia and Florida, where they hoped to see a stronger show of Hispanic and especially black votes for two black candidates hoping to make history. Abrams is vying to become the first female black governor in the country and Gillum the first black governor of Florida. Although turnout was higher than normal for Democrats, it wasn’t enough.
“We were so close,” Florida Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson told The Washington Post, commenting on Gillum’s loss. “What could we have done to drive out more votes? I don’t know. I don’t know what we could have done to make a difference.”
Obama doesn’t have much to show for his efforts in terms of key House races in these four battleground states either, aside from a pickup from Republicans in Georgia. In Florida, they flipped a seat from Republicans in a tossup, and held onto a seat they were favored to win, but Republicans held onto seats in five other key races. Republicans won the key races in Ohio.
Even in the battleground states where candidates Obama campaigned for won important races — Wisconsin and Michigan — it’s unclear what effects his campaigning had, since the candidates he stumped for were heavily favored to win.
Wisconsin Democrat Tony Evers is the one exception — he kicked Republican Scott Walker out of the governor’s mansion in a fiercely contested race. But Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin consistently led Republican challenger Leah Vukmir by about 10 points in the polls, and while Republican John James saw a brief surge of support late in his challenge for Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s seat, she maintained a 7-point lead through the end of the race.
The press continues to bill Obama as a “formidable” campaign force for Democrats, and he may continue to be popular with the party’s base, but his efforts didn’t translate to a win for Hillary in 2016, and they didn’t amount to much this year either.