The White House’s intervention in the race for New York governor is the latest evidence of how President Barack Obama and his top advisers are taking an increasingly direct role in contests across the country, but their assertiveness has bruised some Democrats who suggest it could undercut Obama’s appeal with voters tired of partisan politics.
The overt involvement of Obama’s team in New York, where they have tried ease Gov. David A. Paterson out of the race, has made clear that this is a White House willing to use its clout to help clear the field for favored Democratic candidates and to direct money and other resources in the way it thinks will most benefit the administration and help preserve the Democrats’ majority in Congress.
The president’s top strategists have recruited candidates — and nudged others to step aside — in races in New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Massachusetts. They said they intended to continue this practice heading into the 2010 midterm elections, as well as with an eye to the redistricting fights that will go on within states early in the next decade.
The intense involvement reflects the tactics and style of the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who helped Democrats win the House three years ago as chairman of the party’s congressional campaign committee.
While some party officials applaud the White House for its efforts — there is widespread concern among Democrats that the party could suffer if Paterson runs — the actions are drawing alarm from some Democrats who believe they cross a line and run contrary to Obama’s often-stated pledge to rise above partisan battles.
“The Democratic Party under Barack Obama did not come into office because of political calculation. It got there because of audacity,” said Rep. Joe Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat who ignored efforts by the White House to stay out of a primary race against Sen. Arlen Specter. “To be seen like you are selecting winners and losers in a party boss way will breed some resentment and in a longer term it won’t bode well.”
As Obama flew to New York on Monday, where he appeared briefly with Paterson, the White House played down any risks in becoming embroiled in state politics. “The hazards of the job,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary.
Karl Rove, the chief political adviser to former President George W. Bush, also aggressively intervened in state races to make sure Republicans were fielding strong candidates. But Rove faulted this White House for what he described as its clumsy handling of the situation in New York.
“This was particularly ham-handed,” Rove said.
Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he thought the White House was acting correctly in trying to shape the outcome of races. But he suggested that Paterson could recover if the White House gave him time, and said the Obama team had not handled this case well.
“The president is the head of the party and he has a right to express his opinion,” Rendell said. “The only thing I would have done differently is not let it become known. This can’t be helpful to the governor.”