Obama: kiss of death?

Most US presidents end up as lame ducks. But Barack Obama’s power has waned early, and in November’s midterm elections he will struggle to keep control of the US Senate. One of the key battlegrounds is North Carolina

High on a shelf above a counter in the Raleigh Times Bar is an empty pint glass, sitting encased in front of a US presidential seal. This is the glass from which Barack Obama drank when he passed through Raleigh, capital of North Carolina, during the 2008 presidential race. Those were the "hope and change" glory days of the Illinois senator's election juggernaut.

In a photograph of Obama enjoying the beer, he looks energised and healthy, with a head of dark hair. It contrasts with the greying, often drawn man in the White House today.

Six years on, Americans are disillusioned again, partly with a president who is seen as having overpromised and underdelivered, and partly with Republicans who are blamed for throwing sand in Obama’s legislative engine.

"He is still popular, but not as popular as early in his presidency, when people were excited at what he could do," says one of the bar's customers, Andy Little, who blames members of Congress for voting along party lines on important issues.

READ MORE

Politically, in North Carolina, Obama is regarded as a handicap in November's midterm elections. The state's US Senate seat held by the first-time Democratic senator Kay Hagan is a top target for Republicans in the congressional ballot on November 4th. The election will decide whether Republicans can wrest control of the senate from the Democrats. Republicans are expected to hang on to their majority in the House of Representatives – and with a net gain of six seats in the senate they can take outright control of the US Congress.

Analysts expect Republicans to gain between four and eight seats, although their prospects for a majority are threatened by strong Democratic challengers for Republican seats in Georgia and Kentucky and an independent contender in Kansas.

Republicans have an advantage over Hagan and many other vulnerable Democrats in that white, conservative and older voters tend to turn out in greater numbers in midterm elections.

This week Nate Silver, the political Cassandra behind the data-analysis website FiveThirtyEight, who accurately predicted the 2012 presidential race, gave Republicans a 64 per cent chance of taking the senate.

Purple state

“North Carolina is sort of ground zero for trying to take the senate,” says the Republican political strategist

Chris Sinclair

.

The state's mix of red conservatives in rural areas and blue liberals in the "research triangle" of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill – all university towns – makes the Tar Heel state distinctly purple.

Raleigh’s low cost of living and hub of universities has turned it into one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. An influx of migrants, both from outside the state and from rural areas within the state, is establishing a politically mixed electorate.

In 2008 Obama became the first Democrat to win North Carolina since 1976, but he carried the state with fewer than 14,000 votes. Obama's Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, took the state in 2012 with a similarly narrow victory.

North Carolina can go either way. Polls show that Kay Hagan and her Republican rival, Thom Tillis, speaker of North Carolina's state house, in a dead heat.

Recognising that control of the US Senate could hinge on North Carolina, outside interests, including Charles and David Koch, the billionaire conservative donors reviled by Democrats, have injected $17 million into the campaign, the largest amount of outside spending on any senate race. North Carolinians have been pounded with nasty campaign attack ads for the best part of a year.

“There is no shortage of Democratic money coming into this state, either,” says Thomas Mills, a North Carolina-based political analyst who has campaigned for the Democrats for 20 years

A Republican-led congress would leave Obama facing even greater obstruction in his final two years in the White House, exhausting his legislative agenda and making Washington DC even more dysfunctional.

“For most presidents there is a natural lame-duck period that is enhanced by the other party’s control of one or both houses of congress, and the truth is that Obama has been a lame duck since he was re-elected,” says Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia who runs Crystal Ball, an election-analysis website. “The Republican house has been unwilling to pass almost anything that he favours.”

Tillis has continuously attacked Hagan’s weakest point: her association with Obama. The president’s approval rating is running at a dismal 42 per cent, just two points higher than George W Bush’s in 2006. In that year’s midterms Democrats took control of the US Senate, the House of Representatives and most governorships and state legislatures.

A photograph of Hagan greeting Obama with a kiss on the cheek when he visited the state last week has been used against her on social media.

In the first televised debate in this race, on Wednesday night, a polished, confident Tillis continued the same line of attack, challenging a sometimes hesitant Hagan with the much-quoted statistic that she had voted with Obama 95 per cent of her time in Washington. He dismissed her as a “rubber stamp” for Obama.

Hagan stood her ground. Each time Tillis aligned Hagan with Obama she distanced herself from the president. Obama's failure to weaponise moderate Syrian rebels, she said, had allowed Islamic State to grow. She criticised Obama over his plan to take executive action to change immigration laws and challenged his delay in approving the 2,500km Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.

Attempting to prove her credentials with middle-ground voters, she touted an independent ranking she has received as the United States’ most moderate senator, echoing a campaign ad in which she describes herself as “not too far left, not too far right – just like North Carolina”.

Attacking Tillis, Hagan raised the unpopular cuts in the state’s education budget during his time as speaker of the state house.

Voters’ attitudes

This campaign comes down to whom voters dislike more: the national political establishment, in Washington, where Hagan has been since 2009, or the state legislature, in Raleigh, where Tillis has been since 2011.

Nationally, although fewer Americans are happy with Obama than was the case six years ago, Republicans are no more popular, and November’s elections will turn on who is more unloved. “It is a ‘plague on both your houses’ attitude among voters,” says Sabato. Analysts predict that Republicans will have the edge.

A Republican stranglehold on congress would prove disastrous for the remainder of Obama's presidency, but it may not hobble Democrats in the 2016 presidential race, which would bode well for Hillary Clinton should she decide to run.

“It could help the Democrats,” says Mac McCorkle, a professor of politics at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina. “The gridlock will be more vicious, and Obama and the Democrats will be able to make a stronger argument that the Republicans are obstructionist.”

With just nine weeks until election day, North Carolinians expect to be bombarded with even more campaign ads in this hard-fought race that will continue to attract a great deal of outside political money and attention.

“I have gotten to the point where I just zone out now,” says Chris, a banker on his lunchbreak at the Raleigh Times Bar. “It is going to get nastier, too. I think they are just being polite right now.”