Brown bucks trend nationally with Obama invitation

Maryland is not Kentucky: Brown camp sees advantages to having Obama in final weeks of race.

They may not speak his name in Kentucky or think much of his policies in Arkansas. But in Maryland, at least, Democrats are still big fans of President Barack Obama.

That's the calculation Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's campaign for governor is making as it plans to host Obama in Prince George's County this weekend for what might be the president's first rally with any candidate running in this year's midterm elections.

Political analysts said Brown's motivation for campaigning with Obama — while Democrats in other states have kept their distance — is easy to read: He wants to energize African-American voters.

While Obama's approval ratings have slipped among other groups, polls show he remains popular among black voters.

"In an off year Republicans tend to turn out more than Democrats do," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "African-American turnout is critical."

Obama is set to speak Sunday in Prince George's County, a Democratic stronghold. The Brown campaign announced the Upper Marlboro event this week as a new round of polls showed that Republican Larry Hogan has closed Brown's lead to single digits in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is returning to Maryland on Hogan's behalf Tuesday for an event in Potomac, the campaign said.

The president is scheduled to campaign this weekend in his hometown of Chicago for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. He canceled a trip Wednesday for Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy to meet with aides at the White House about the widening Ebola crisis.

But the visits to blue states represent a break from the narrative that has dominated this year's midterms. Democrats, struggling to keep control of the Senate, have been mostly cool to Obama.

In Kentucky, Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes has repeatedly declined to say whether she even voted for the president. Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat running for re-election, used a debate this month to note his objections to White House policies on the environment, Social Security and gun control.

"I disagree with Obama plenty, and, yes, I've been disappointed in him and I'm not going to sugarcoat that," he said.

Republicans, in contrast, have been eager to tie Obama to every Democrat on the ballot.

"We look forward to these candidates embracing Obama's failed agenda," Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said of the president's travel in Maryland and elsewhere.

But the results of a recent poll underscore why Democrats in Maryland see the landscape differently. Ninety-eight percent of the state's African-American voters said they have a favorable view of the president, according to a statewide poll conducted by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.

The survey was commissioned by Maryland, My Maryland PAC, a group that supports Hogan.

By comparison, 37 percent of whites had a favorable view of Obama.

It's not unusual for second-term presidents to lose their political mojo by their sixth year. Republican candidates, facing criticism over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, ran from President George W. Bush during the 2006 midterms. And President Bill Clinton was in the throes of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998.

Some strategists said the president's predicament is not merely a result of his lower approval rating. The lineup of Senate races this election cycle was daunting even before his popularity slipped. Several of the closest battles are in states Obama lost in 2012.

"The polls are obviously showing that a lot of independents don't think Obama is too pretty," said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic strategist based in Virginia. "It's that simple. And soft Republican votes that might be retrievable, [a campaign appearance by] Obama would solidify many of them."

The White House says the president is happy to help Democrats however he can. That has largely meant fundraising. Obama spoke last month at a fundraiser in Baltimore to help the campaign arm of the Senate Democrats.

The president and first lady have done their part with low-profile tactics that some strategists argue are more effective than large rallies. On black radio stations and in targeted mailers, Web videos and robocalls, Obama will close out the final weeks aiming to activate the universe of die-hard supporters.

Republicans haven't held back. In North Carolina, GOP candidate Thom Tillis ran an ad suggesting that his opponent, Sen. Kay Hagan, should have done more to persuade Obama to try to stop the rise of Islamic militants in Iraq. "We can't let our kids die in vain," a military mom says in the ad.

Even first-time candidate Clay Aiken, better known for his "American Idol" turn than his influence on the White House, has taken hits in that state.

"This Obama-Aiken economy is just killing us," his opponent, GOP incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers, said during a recent debate.

In Maryland, Republicans said Obama's visit would have little impact on Brown's campaign.

"After the pep rally with the President, hardworking Marylanders are still going to be stuck with the burdensome tax-and-spend policies of the O'Malley-Brown administration," Hogan spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said in a statement.

"Despite what the president and the lieutenant governor may say, hope is not an economic strategy."

The Brown campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The Tribune Washington bureau contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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