WASHINGTON - Democrats running for re-election in Arkansas, Louisiana and other Republican-leaning states faced enough problems before President Barack Obama's popularity swooned in November. Now they are awkwardly distancing themselves from him a year before the election, seeking the right balance between independence and betrayal.
A popular president can help his party's candidates for Congress and governor candidates in mid-term elections. But Democrats increasingly worry they could suffer losses, much as they did in 2010, Obama's first mid-term elections.
In a twist few expected, Republicans are still hammering the issue that fueled their successes in 2010: the health care overhaul they call Obamacare. They are making life especially uncomfortable for Democratic senators in states Obama lost.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, facing a tough re-election bid in Louisiana, recently posed for photographers exiting Air Force One with Obama after flying from Washington to New Orleans. But she skipped the president's public event there to attend a small-dollar fundraiser elsewhere, saying it had long been on her schedule.
Other Democratic lawmakers are showing similar wariness, much to Republicans' delight.
"Vulnerable Democrats like having President Obama raising money for them in New York and Los Angeles, but avoid appearing on stage with him in their home states," said Brad Dayspring, who helps run Republican senatorial campaigns.
In nearly every state, Republicans are highlighting instances in which Democrats echoed Obama's now-disproven claim that people could keep their health insurance plans if they wanted.
To be sure, there's nothing new about lawmakers keeping an uneasy space from presidents with poor or middling popularity ratings. Several Republicans made no mention of then-President George W. Bush in their 2006 campaigns, and Bush was a bigger liability in 2008.
Until recently, Obama's personal popularity remained healthy even when many Americans disliked his policies. But Democrats are alarmed to see his approval ratings hit all-time lows in recent polls.
Gallup found 39 percent of Americans approving Obama's job performance in early November, and 53 percent disapproving. His numbers were slightly better two weeks later, but still far from what Democrats had hoped.
Obama's popularity is probably lower than 39 percent in states that voted against him. That's where Democrats are struggling to keep their Senate majority, which Republicans will seize if they can gain six net seats.
In Louisiana, which Obama lost to Mitt Romney by 17 percentage points, Landrieu generally has supported the 2010 health law revision. But she recently introduced legislation to let people keep individual health policies that don't meet the new law's minimum requirements.
Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, hoping to oust Landrieu next year, released an online video showing her with the president on Air Force One. "She's always been Barack Obama's rubber stamp," the announcer says.
In Alaska, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich has not asked Obama to campaign for him. If Obama and other federal officials should visit Alaska, said Begich campaign manager Susanne Fleek-Green, the senator wants them to travel to the North Slope "so they understand the opportunities and challenges we face with oil and gas development."
Obama lost Alaska by 14 percentage points last year.
Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, seeking a third term in Arkansas, emphasizes his demands that the White House fix the health program's troubled website and hold officials accountable for shortcomings. "I won't let up until these problems are fixed," Pryor told reporters after Obama hosted a White House meeting for all Democratic senators up for election in 2014.
Obama lost Arkansas by 24 percentage points. Blanche Lincoln, the Democratic senator who sought re-election in 2010, was clobbered by Republican John Boozman, a fate Pryor hopes to avoid. Rep. Tom Cotton is the likely GOP nominee.
In North Carolina, which Obama narrowly carried in 2008 and narrowly lost in 2012, Republicans hope unhappiness with the health care law will topple Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in November. Hagan, seeking a second term, told The News and Observer of Raleigh in August she would "be honored" to have Obama campaign for her. But Republicans are distributing a WTVD news clip that says Hagan didn't answer directly when asked if she would appear alongside the president.
That's nonsense, says Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner. Hagan "has said she'd certainly have him campaign" for her, Weiner said. But the campaign's main point, she said, is to contrast Hagan's "record of getting bipartisan results for the state and her opponents who are more interested in fringe, anti-middle class policies."
Hagan attended a recent fundraiser held by Vice President Joe Biden in the college town of Chapel Hill.
Democrats note that even with Obama's fallen approval ratings, congressional Republicans remain even less popular. Meanwhile, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough meets regularly, and quietly. with Democratic senators facing election next year.