By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Spooked by President Barack Obama's low approval ratings, some of his fellow Democrats in tough November election races have begun their campaigns by distancing themselves from the White House and asserting their independence from Obama's policies.
In what amounts to a survival-first strategy among embattled Democrats crucial to the party's effort to keep control of the Senate, some candidates in conservative states Obama lost in 2012 are aggressively criticizing his healthcare, energy and regulatory policies.
The group includes three incumbent senators, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska, as well as Natalie Tennant, who is seeking to replace retiring Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.
Other Democratic senators facing tough battles for re-election have not been as critical of Obama, but have signaled they might not do much campaigning with him.
Democratic Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina recently passed on a chance to appear publicly with Obama, saying she had another commitment. Begich and another Democrat up for re-election, Mark Udall of Colorado, have expressed skepticism about the idea of campaigning with the president.
Each of the Democratic senators is facing persistent criticism from Republicans who cast them as rubber stamps for parts of Obama's agenda that are particularly unpopular in their states.
The growing distance between these Democrats and Obama's White House was evident this week in Washington, where their responses to the president's State of the Union address ranged from muted to chilly.
Begich said after the speech that, if Obama came to Alaska, he would be "not really interested in campaigning" with him, but would "drag him around" to show him how the administration's policies have hurt the state by limiting oil and gas development and the issuance of logging permits.
"I don't need him campaigning for me. I need him to change some of his policies," Begich told CNN.
Democratic senators are not the only candidates in their party keeping some distance from Obama. In Wisconsin, a state the president won in the 2012 election, Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke skipped an appearance by Obama in Waukesha on Thursday. She said she had a previously scheduled commitment.
Deciding how to handle a president in their party whose approval ratings are down is a common quandary for candidates in midterm elections. Many Republicans stayed away from then-President George W. Bush in 2006, when his slumping approval ratings and the unpopularity of the Iraq war helped fuel a Democratic blitz that gave the party control of both houses of Congress and most state governorships.
This year, the problem for Democrats is reflected in Obama's sagging approval ratings after a year in which his healthcare overhaul got off to a rocky start, and critics have cast his policies as causing a decline in American influence around the world.
Reuters/Ipsos tracking polls on Thursday indicated that 38 percent of Americans nationwide had a favorable view of the job Obama is doing, while nearly 53 percent disapproved. A year ago, 52 percent viewed Obama favorably and 43 percent did not.
Obama's low ratings have contributed to Democrats' worries that regaining a majority in the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives could be out of reach, and losing control of the Senate is a possibility.
In the 100-seat Senate, where Republicans need to win a net six seats in the November 4 elections to reclaim a majority, Democrats must defend seats in seven states where Republican Mitt Romney beat Obama in 2012. Obama's ratings are particularly low in those states: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.
Republicans have launched ads in several states reminding voters of the ties between Obama and local Democrats, especially Senate Democrats who supported the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 healthcare law also known as Obamacare. The law aims to help millions of uninsured Americans get health coverage and provides a range of consumer protections. Republicans say it will raise costs and limit healthcare choices.
"It's going to be very difficult for a lot of these Democrats because they will own Obama's agenda, no matter how hard they try not to," said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
"Obama will be a drag on them because he reminds voters of how far the party has shifted to the left."
HAVE TO BE ON THE OFFENSIVE
Obama and his aides have largely sidestepped questions about the efforts of fellow Democrats to distance themselves from the president, who will talk with senators at a Democratic retreat next week.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said this week he expected the party's Senate candidates to welcome Obama into their states to campaign. Democratic strategists, meanwhile, are casting the November elections as contests between candidates, not a referendum on the president.
"What those candidates have to decide, especially in those tough states, is how they are going to talk about these big issues like Obamacare," said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. "They have to be on the offensive."
Senator Landrieu, who is likely to face a difficult re-election battle against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, recently introduced legislation to allow people to keep their health insurance policies even if those policies did not meet Obamacare's new requirements for coverage. In her first campaign ad, she criticized Obama for breaking his promise that all Americans who liked their health plan could keep it.
"This is a promise that you made. This is a promise that you should keep," Landrieu, who voted for Obamacare, says in the ad.
Pryor, who faces a challenge from Republican Rep. Tom Cotton in Arkansas and is perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Democrat up for re-election, seemed to echo Republicans' criticism of Obama after the president's speech before Congress on Tuesday.
Pryor highlighted his opposition to Obama's push for gun control and additional farm regulations. Pryor also was critical of delays by Obama's administration in deciding the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would help bring oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Pryor supports the pipeline.
"I've always said that I'll work with the president when I think he's right, but oppose him when I think he's wrong," Pryor said in a statement. "I'll continue to oppose his agenda when it's bad for Arkansas and our country."
West Virginia Democrat Tennant, who has an uphill battle against Republican Shelly Moore Capito to keep a Democrat in Rockefeller's seat, has been criticizing the administration's regulation of the coal industry, saying it was eliminating jobs in her state.
"If the president wants to promote opportunity, he needs to rethink his energy policies. The president is wrong on coal and I will fight him or anyone else who wants to take our coal jobs," Tennant added.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Andre Grenon)