Freshmen Run Away From Obama

May 23, 2010

The House Democratic freshmen who rose to power riding candidate Barack Obama ’s coattails in 2008 are now eager to strut their independence heading into the midterms.

Some rookies opposed Obama’s cap-and-trade climate change bill; others rejected his health care plan. But even those members who backed all of the president’s signature initiatives are ready to show that they can win their first re-election bids without leaning on Obama’s star power.

“You have to be an independent, no matter what,” Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper said. The Pennsylvania Democrat pointed to her vote against the climate change bill, which she said is an economic loser for southwest Pennsylvania, and her fight for abortion funding restrictions in the health care bill as evidence of her independence.

Dahlkemper said that while she would be “very happy to welcome” Obama to her district, she didn’t know how much of a help or a hindrance he would be.

“I just think we don’t quite know yet where his popularity is,” she said. “The best thing I can do is get out and shake hands and look people in the eye. They want to see me and they want to know what I’m doing. … I’m much less concerned about who’s going to come in and campaign for me.”

Rep. Betsy Markey of Colorado, who voted against the House health care bill but ultimately voted for the final plan, said she didn’t think it would make much difference either way if the president stumped in her district.

“It’s always an honor when the president makes an offer to visit. But this is a Colorado race,” she said.

Nearly all freshman Democrats embraced Obama’s broad economic plan as soon as they came to office — and that includes last year’s $787 billion stimulus package that cut taxes and increased spending in an unprecedented effort to blunt the recession.

Republicans have been aggressively attacking Democrats for that vote ever since, accusing them of endorsing out-of-control Washington spending while failing to stay focused on jobs and the economy.

In an e-mail sent May 21 to the districts of more than a dozen freshman Democrats, Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, blasted them for “running scared” from their state’s unemployment problems and cited the “failed trillion-dollar stimulus flop” as proof that they are out of touch.

But first-term Democrats may be looking at newly minted Rep. Mark Critz for inspiration. The Pennsylvania Democrat performed better than expected in last week’s special election to replace the late John P. Murtha — and he did so by running as an independent-minded Democrat who is pro-gun, anti-abortion and against Obama’s health care plan.

“At the end of the day, each of us is judged by what we’ve done,” said Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello .

Obama didn’t carry Perriello’s district in 2008, but the lawmaker has voted for all of the president’s signature issues. He said he is “proud to have stood with him” on legislation he agreed with and would welcome a joint appearance with the president in his district — even though some of his constituents may not be Obama’s biggest fans.

“It might upset some people. Probably the same people who weren’t real crazy about me either,” Perriello said.

Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland, a freshman from a district Obama lost by 18 points, said his victory proved that people vote for the individual and don’t necessarily base their votes on a party or a president.

“Everyone views us as the pawns of things we can’t control,” he said. “Ultimately these things are decisions about two or three people.”

And while Kratovil has staked out areas of independence — he voted against health care but for cap-and-trade — he sees no advantage in attacking Obama, either.

“I have never been one to believe in throwing other people under the bus to make yourself look better. I don’t agree with [Obama] on everything, but there are things I do. I am my own guy. … I think overall the president’s done the best job he can given the incredible difficult situation he found himself in.”

Freshmen in states hit hardest by the recession say they are eager to focus on the work they have done for their constituents, while also bashing Republicans for having no solutions, saying it was the GOP that fell asleep at the switch when the economy crashed under President George W. Bush .

Rep. Steve Driehaus of Ohio said that while he doesn’t agree with Obama on some issues, he welcomes the president to his Cincinnati district because it gives him a chance to draw comparisons between Obama’s and Bush’s economic policies.

“I will compare Bush to Obama any day of the week,” he said.

His home-state Democratic colleague, Rep. John Boccieri , said he has already had Obama come to Ohio as part of his push for health care overhaul and was among the freshmen who voted for health care and climate change legislation. But he said his focus will be on results, not politicians.

“The face of this debate is not [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi , Barack Obama or [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid ,” said Boccieri, “it was Jack Hillyer from my congressional district, who lost his health insurance even though he had a motorcycle dealership, and he sat in my office almost in tears and said, ‘Congressman, I hope I can live for two years so I can get on Medicare.’”

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