The Slatest

Making Sense of Obama’s Seemingly Scattershot First Endorsement List

Former President Barack Obama speaks event in Paris in 2017.
Barack Obama’s first batch of 2018 endorsements were classic Obama.
MARTIN BUREAU/Getty Images

Barack Obama waded into the midterms on Tuesday with a bevy of endorsements up and down the November ballot. In all, the former president announced his support for 81 candidates, running in a total of 14 states, in what he called his “first wave” of picks. “I’m confident that, together, they’ll strengthen this country we love by restoring opportunity, repairing our alliances and standing in the world, and upholding our fundamental commitment to justice, fairness, responsibility, and the rule of law,” Obama said in a statement. “But first, they need our votes.”

At first glance, the list looks random, particularly when so much of the national attention these days is centered on the race for the House and Senate. The list, after all, includes a former congressman running to be Ohio’s state auditor but does not include many candidates who are key to Democrats’ bid to retake either chamber of Congress. But look closer and it’s not hard to see a certain type of Obamian logic at play, one based on a combination of political pragmatism and personal loyalty.

Obama’s state-level focus—10 of his endorsements are in governor or lieutenant-governor races, and another 40 or so are in state legislature contests—makes plenty of sense when you remember that he is backing the Eric Holder–led National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is working to break GOP control of the redistricting process in more than a dozen states. And while Obama’s picks at the federal level are a little more curious, they too can be explained in part by some convenient ground rules Obama seems to have set for himself, as well as his clear affection for his former aides that are now running for office.

According to the announcement, Obama will prioritize “taking back control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and growing the U.S. Senate Democratic Caucus.” The semantics there are telling: Democrats are more likely to win the House this fall than they are the Senate, and Obama would appear far better suited to help candidates running for the lower chamber given many of the House battlegrounds are in districts Trump lost in 2016 while most of the key Senate contests are in states Trump won.

As a result, this first round of endorsements punts on the question of what role Obama plans to play in the battle for the Senate. The sole Senate candidate to make the cut was Rep. Jacky Rosen, who is running in Nevada against Sen. Dean Heller, the only Republican up for re-election in a state Trump lost.

Keeping the list incumbent-free, meanwhile, buys Democrats more time to decide whether Obama’s backing would help or hurt red-state senators like Indiana’s Joe Donnelly or North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp. Likewise, the apparent decision to hold off on endorsing candidates until after their primaries will do the same for red-state challengers like Phil Bredesen in Tennessee and Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona. Both are prohibitive favorites to win their nominations, but it’s unclear just how interested either would be in an Obama endorsement. Bredesen, for one, is running as a business-friendly moderate with bipartisan cred, and he might pass on an endorsement given that Obama lost Tennessee by 20 points in 2012. (Beto O’Rourke, who is running against Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, faces a similar dilemma. However, considering that O’Rourke is a non-incumbent who won his primary, Obama doesn’t have an easy excuse for snubbing him this round.)

Obama’s House picks were more straightforward. The vast majority are either running in battleground districts, have professional ties to the former president, or both.

Among the lucky Obama alumni to receive endorsements: Andy Kim, who worked at the White House National Security Council and is now running against Rep. Tom MacArthur in New Jersey; Tom Malinowski, who served as an assistant secretary of state and who is challenging Rep. Leonard Lance in New Jersey; Adrienne Bell, who worked on Obama’s 2012 campaign and who is hoping to unseat Rep. Randy Weber in Texas; Ammar Campa-Najjar, a former Labor Department official now running against Rep. Duncan Hunter in California; and Jill Schiller, who worked in the Office of Management and Budget and is trying to beat Rep. Brad Wenstrup in Ohio.

Both Bell and Schiller are considered long shots—neither of the districts they’re running in has elected a Democrat in three decades—which makes their presence a little odd given all those better positioned Democratic challengers Obama passed over this round. Establishment-types would have probably rather seen those endorsements go to challengers like Abby Finkenauer or Cindy Axne, both of whom are mounting serious challenges to GOP incumbents in Iowa, a state Obama won twice. And progressives will notice that Obama endorsed one House nominee in New York, and it wasn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But taken as a whole, this list is far less scattershot than it seems. In reality, it’s mostly safe. For Democrats who have been desperate for Obama to return to the campaign trail, that, for now, should be enough.