White House Picks Favorites in 2010 Races

By Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal - January 12, 2010

The White House is reaching into political races nationwide to urge its preferred candidates to seek election to competitive seats, while helping to nudge weak contenders out of the way, according to party officials familiar with the moves.

It isn't unusual for a president to pick favorites, but the sense of urgency is heightened this year by Democrats' sense that a difficult election year lies ahead.

President Barack Obama's aides are taking pains to operate out of public view to avoid repeating embarrassing miscues made last year, when efforts to pressure unpopular New York Gov. David Paterson into retirement hit front pages and proved unsuccessful. The governor has brushed off suggestions that he step aside and stayed in re-election mode.

A more subtle White House approach came into view last week after a series of surprise decisions by top-level Democrats to abandon their candidacies. Obama aides moved instantly to lure stronger contenders to the ballot.

Mr. Obama's team hopes the early efforts will save Democratic congressional seats in 2010 and thus help advance the president's domestic agenda, and similarly keep governors seats Democratic to help rebuild grassroots political networks in time for Mr. Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.

The exit of Michigan Lt. Gov. John Cherry from that state's gubernatorial contest came as party insiders grew increasingly concerned that Mr. Cherry faced an uphill struggle to win, putting a chill on potential donors, according to Democratic officials.

When Mr. Cherry dropped out, citing fund-raising problems, White House officials began discussions with a potential replacement, Denise Ilitch, whose family owns the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, Detroit Tigers baseball team and Little Caesars Pizza chain.

Ms. Ilitch is an elected member of the state Board of Regents. Strategists believe her personal wealth and image as a businesswoman and political outsider could give Democrats a boost in an economically ailing state where the party's top official, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, is unpopular.

"The White House wants to have a partner here in Michigan clearly after the election," Ms. Granholm told WOOD-TV of Grand Rapids, Mich., last week, when asked if Mr. Obama's aides engineered Mr. Cherry's withdrawal from the race.

Ms. Granholm said the White House didn't ask Mr. Cherry to bow out. But, she added, "I know that the White House and others are looking at what is the profile of somebody in Michigan that might be successful. Obviously the experience of being in office is one component. But with respect to an electorate that may be angry or frustrated, that might have some negative ramifications."

In Connecticut, Mr. Obama called state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on the day last week that Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd announced his retirement, highlighting the view of White House officials and Senate leaders that Mr. Blumenthal is the party's strongest candidate for Mr. Dodd's seat.

Later last week, in the wake of the news that Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter wouldn't seek a second term and that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wouldn't vie to succeed him, a call by Mr. Obama to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper signaled the White House's preference for the next Democratic candidate for governor.

White House officials didn't discourage Mr. Salazar, a former Colorado senator, from entering the race, letting him decide on his own to stay in the cabinet. But they did believe Mr. Hickenlooper had a better chance than others to keep the governor's post in Democratic hands.

In Ohio, White House political director Patrick Gaspard has been in conversations with Gov. Ted Strickland, whose approval ratings have slipped and who is facing a challenge from former Republican Rep. John Kasich. Democrats there say the White House is backing Mr. Strickland's re-election bid but is focused on reigniting the grassroots effort that helped Mr. Obama win there in 2008 and would be necessary for success again in 2012.

Mr. Gaspard didn't respond to requests for comment.

The political office faces a new test now in New York, where party leaders had worked to avoid a primary challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who ran an unsuccessful 2006 campaign for Senate in his home state, is exploring a bid in New York, where he has lived for three years. Mr. Ford's spokesman said he would ignore "party bosses" dissuading him from a run.

Write to Peter Wallsten at

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