By MARSHA MERCER
Bubba is back.
Nearly 18 years after he ran his last campaign, former President Bill Clinton is on the campaign trail for beleaguered Democrats, and he hasn’t lost his touch.
When he stands before a cheering throng, bites his lip and says, “I love Maine”… Connecticut… Arkansas… (insert your state here), Clinton sounds like he means it, and Democrats love him back.
Bill Clinton is by far the most admired president of the last quarter century, polls show. Forty-two percent of registered voters say they admire him most among recent presidents.
Republicans have no comparable presidential star power. Only 17 percent said they admire former President George W. Bush the most, the NBC News-Wall Street Journal-Annenberg survey also reported in June. His father, George H. W. Bush, and Obama each edged out the younger Bush by just one point in the survey.
On the campaign trail, Clinton praises inclusiveness and cooperation, both of which are sorely lacking these days. But he, of course, isn’t on any ballot. Does his approval mean anything? Polls suggest it does.
Thirty-seven percent of voters said they were more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Bill Clinton while 27 percent said they were less likely to do so – for a 10 percent net positive, a Wall Street Journal poll in March found. In contrast, Obama’s endorsement of a candidate meant a net negative of 20 percent, similar to a tea party endorsement.
The South could be pivotal in the battle for Senate control, and Clinton may be especially helpful in motivating African American voters. The former president is welcome in red-ish Southern states where Obama is not, including Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Arkansas.
To win Senate control, Republicans need to pick up six seats. They hope to hold onto Georgia, where Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring. Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is in a tight race with Republican businessman David Perdue. Clinton will be the political star power at a Sept. 13 fundraiser for Nunn at the home of singer-dancer Usher in Atlanta.
Clinton also is helping Sens. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, and Mark Pryor in Arkansas, among others. He has campaigned for Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, who’s hoping to topple Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
He’s even going to Florida to help the party-changing Charlie Crist, who is in a close gubernatorial contest against incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Times have changed since Crist, previously a Republican and independent, called for Clinton’s presidential resignation in 1998.
The last thing Republicans want is an election about the glory that was Bill Clinton. They want the midterms to be about Obama and what they see as his failed policies, including health care reform.
Typically the party of an unpopular president suffers significant losses in midterm elections. In 2006, Republicans lost 30 House seats and six Senate seats when George W. Bush’s job approval ratings were the same or slightly lower than Obama’s ratings are now. About 42 percent of people approve of the job Obama is doing.
In 2010, Obama’s first midterm election, Democrats lost 63 House seats, ceding control of the House to Republicans, and six Senate seats.
But the 1998 midterm, the last of Clinton’s presidency, played out under the shadow of the Monica Lewinsky affair and Republicans plans for impeachment, and yet Democrats managed to add five House seats and lose no Senate seats.
That’s a strong enough performance to gladden Democratic hearts and kindle hope that Clinton can yet save the Senate.
In 1998, though, Clinton and Democrats had the wind of a booming economy at their backs in an election where no single issue dominated.
This year, voters are disgruntled with the economy and the country’s direction, and there’s again talk of impeachment. Republicans are already planning their GOP Senate agenda for next year.
With Democrats’ backs to the wall, Clinton’s magic looks awfully good. And Clinton, whether to show his own vigor or to score points for Hillary in advance of 2016, is only happy to oblige.
There are nine weeks until Election Day. And Bubba is back.
©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.