TIME

Obama Rallies Wisconsin Democrats for Mary Burke

President Obama attends a campaign event with Democratic candidate for Wisconsin Gov. Mary Burke while at North Division High School in Milwaukee, Oct. 28, 2014.
President Obama attends a campaign event with Democratic candidate for Wisconsin Gov. Mary Burke while at North Division High School in Milwaukee, Oct. 28, 2014. Larry Downing—Reuters

Burke gambles that Obama will drive out the base more than he drives away those unhappy with him

President Barack Obama did his best on Tuesday to remind Wisconsonites why they twice elected him President, only this time he turned on the full court press for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke.

“She will be your next governor as long as folks vote,” Obama told an overflow crowd before the event. “We need you to go talk to your friends, your neighbors, you coworkers. You got that cousin on the couch who’s watching the ol’ Packers games, but doesn’t always vote during the midterms. You have to go reach out and tell people that they’ve got to exercise their franchise, they’ve got to be good citizens.”

The event was at North Division High School, in a ward where Obama outpolled Republican Mitt Romney 843 to 5 in the 2012 presidential election, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The somewhat risky bet that Burke is making is that Obama, polarizing as he is, will help turn out Wisconsin’s urban Democratic base for her next Tuesday.

“Wisconsin is one of the most polarized states in the country and this race has been close for months,” says Nathan Gonzales, who follows gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “When a race is this close anything could be deciding factor. The Burke campaign is making a calculated risk that having president Obama campaign for her will be a net boost on turn out and we’ll see on election day if that was the right decision.”

Burke is one of the very few candidates to welcome Obama, whose unpopularity in the polls has made him somewhat of a pariah amongst vulnerable Democrats in tight races. But Wisconsin’s labor-heavy, populist base hasn’t always loved Burke, a millionaire former executive at her family’s company, Trek Bicycle. Thus the gamble with Obama, whose presence risks putting off independent and suburban voters.

Walker, who is reviled by Wisconsin Dems who tried to recall him after he pushed through union-busting legislation, was quick to note that Obama is the fourth Washington surrogate to campaign for Burke in recent weeks. Former President Bill Clinton packed a Hyatt ballroom with nearly 1,000 supporters for Burke last week. First Lady Michelle Obama has made two visits. And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has also put in an appearance.

“I think it reflects the fact that she’s the candidate of Washington. We’re not bringing Washington surrogates in,” Walker told reporters after an event Tuesday in Wausau.

At the same time, Walker isn’t without some outside help himself, though he’s been complaining about how he’d like more help. Walker, who is scheduled to campaign the Republican Governor’s Association Chair Chris Christie back in Wausau on Friday, on Monday dinged Christie for not providing enough support, only to walk it back hours later.

“Let me be clear: When I complain about the national groups that come in, I by no means am complaining about the RGA,” Walker told reporters. “Gov. Christie’s a good friend. He’s the only person I’m campaigning with this week who’s not from Wisconsin, and that’s because he’s a friend and he asked if he could come to the state and campaign.”

Walker is leading Burke by 0.2%, according to a Real Clear Politics average of Wisconsin polls. And he hardly suffered from financial neglect. RGA has spent more than $20 million for Walker. $5.2 million in 2010, $8.9 million in 2012 and $8 million in 2014. If you add up all the outside spending, Walker has a $4 million advantage, according to a GOP source.

Walker and Burke have also been fighting for the female vote. Walker announced a bus tour today for Women for Walker and began airing a television ad featuring Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch claiming that Walker supports equal pay for women. Democrats were quick to cry foul, noting that Walker signed a bill repealing the state’s equal pay law two years ago.

“We’re one week out and Scott Walker is launching his ‘Women for Walker’ bus tour and releasing a TV a touting his support for equal pay after repealing the state law,” says Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, a group that works to elect pro-choice women. “Mary Burke, however, has a real message to run on – one that provides economic opportunity for hard working families, that’s a message that is electrifying crowds across the state.”

Nationally, Democrats have focused on turning out unmarried women, a demographic that reliably votes Democratic but rarely shows up in off-presidential year elections. In some races, Democrats lead by double digits amongst women.

But Burke enjoys only a slight edge with women, 48% to Walker’s 47% according to the most recent Marquette Poll out Oct. 15. Obama, who remains relatively popular with unmarried women nationwide, could help change that. “This is one of the closest races in the country,” says Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “If the President is going to Wisconsin, it is a sign that strategists believe he can motivate drop off voters. In a race this tight, every vote is going to matter.”

It was a point Obama certainly drove home in the lively campaign event. “Four years ago, Democrats lost the governor’s race in Wisconsin by just 10 votes per ward. Ten votes. Hmm-mmm,” he said, arching a brow as the crowd laughed. “Ten votes. Ten votes could be the difference between an economy that works for everybody, or an economy that just works for the few. Ten votes could decide whether nearly 600,000 Wisconsin workers are denied a raise, or whether they get the raise they deserve. Ten votes could decide whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin families remain without health insurance, or whether they finally get a chance to go see a doctor. Your vote will decide the course that Wisconsin takes.” The crowd roared its approval.

–With reporting by Zeke Miller in Washington.

TIME 2014 elections

No, Republicans Aren’t Yet Winning the Women’s Vote

Jeanne Shaheen,Scott Brown
United States Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), right, listens as her Republican rival, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown speaks during their debate , Monday, Oct. 6, 2014 in Conway, N.H. Jim Cole—AP

One poll doth not a trend make

The Associated Press dropped its latest national poll Wednesday ahead of the midterm elections due to be held in less than three weeks. The poll had a spate of expected findings: likely voters favor Republicans to take control of the U.S. Senate, the top issue remains the economy, and no one likes either party very much. Then, buried in the seventh paragraph of the story, was this nugget about women voters:

Women have moved in the GOP’s direction since September. In last month’s AP-GfK poll, 47 percent of female likely voters said they favored a Democratic-controlled Congress while 40 percent wanted the Republicans to capture control. In the new poll, the two parties are about even among women, 44 percent prefer the Republicans, 42 percent the Democrats.

Given Democrats’ unrelenting drumbeat on women—their women’s economic agenda, the GOP’s “War on Women”—for the last six months, this looked like surprising news. Democrats have staked the fate on the Senate on turning out one demographic: unmarried women, who vote reliably Democratic but tend not to show up in off presidential elections. Democrats have won women every year since the Reagan era except for 2010 and in losing them they lost control of the House and six Senate seats. Thus their strategy this year to turn out unmarried women in order to prevent a 2010 from happening all over again. If the AP poll is correct Democrats are in deep trouble.

Needless to say, paragraph seven led the Drudge Report much of the morning: “Poll shock: Women want Republicans!” That spawned a spate of headlines from conservative news sites. Townhall led with: “Poll: More Women Plan to Vote For Republicans in Midterms.” And Hotair blared: “Republicans closing the [gender] gap.”

But the poll is just one data point, and there is a good reason to be skeptical of a major shift in the female electorate. The reason is the voter screen that the AP used.

“Their likely voters screen in this survey is very similar to the 2010 electorate—i.e. more conservatives than moderates are likely to vote,” says Dave Winston, a GOP pollster. “But if you’re looking at variety of different surveys, the voter screening differences are huge, so you’re depending on how they phrase a question—are you likely to vote—or a series of questions to come up with who’s in the poll.”

Winston says the AP took steps after its polls proved off course in 2012 to correct what they saw as flaws in their survey-taking. But their new processes remain unproven. “The proof will be in the pudding,” he says.

The AP says they stand behind the poll. “The poll does show quite clearly that women who are likely to vote and have a preference for who controls Congress have shifted toward the Republicans. And I stand firmly behind that finding,” says Jennifer Agiesta, the AP’s director of polling.

Granted, every midterm electorate skews older, more conservative and more male and Democrats face an uphill battle trying to turn out a demographic that doesn’t usually vote, but this poll is either wrong or “it’s a precursor to a trend that none of us have spotted yet,” says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who together with GOP pollster Ed Goeas does George Washington University’s Battleground State polls. “But I haven’t seen any other poll that shows that.”

“It seems off, honestly” Lake says. “We aren’t seeing any place where there isn’t a gender gap. We haven’t’ seen any polling that shows women trending Republican. You see men more enthusiastic for Republicans than women are for Democrats, sure. And women are sitting more undecided, which is why both parties are looking to convince women voters before election day, but we haven’t seen anything even approaching gender parity, let alone women trending Republican, in our polls of likely voters.”

The only other recent national poll that breaks out likely voters by sex came out with opposite results. Fox News found Dems winning women 44% to 35% amongst likely voters in a survey conducted Oct. 12-14. And polls in battleground states have Dems winning women by double digits and unmarried women by as much as 30 points in many cases.

“This just isn’t what we’re seeing in competitive races. North Carolina, New Hampshire, Colorado and Michigan all have decisive and, in some cases, historic gender gaps with women favoring Democrats,” says Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, which helps elect pro-choice female Democrats. “The GOP can try to cling to this national poll, but the reality is that they continue to be underwater with women voters in key races – women don’t trust them on the economic issues that matter to them and their families. Whether it’s ending gender discrimination in pay, raising the minimum wage or protecting access to health care, women voters know that it’s Democratic candidates who are squarely on their side and they’re going to show it at the ballot box.”

In 2012, Democrats benefitted from a couple of GOP senatorial candidates who said dumb things about women and rape, comments that turned off female voters, helping President Obama and the Democrats win big with women. This cycle, Republicans have avoided such missteps. Both Mark Udall in Colorado and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen have turned away from War on Women ads and attack lines in the last week. But are Republicans winning women? The preponderance of state and other national polls indicate that isn’t happening.

TIME 2014 Election

Pelosi and Hillary Join Forces to Rally Democratic Women

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Doris Matsui, Nancy Pelosi
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gathers with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, left, and other Bay area congresswomen after speaking at a fundraiser for Democratic congressional candidates hosted by Pelosi at the Fairmont Hotel Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, in San Francisco. Eric Risberg—AP

The event brought together Clinton and Obama supporters from 2008

Three generations of Birmingham family women turned out on Monday to see House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rally for female Democratic candidates.

“It was fabulous, a wonderful event,” gushes Alanna Birmingham, 17, clutching one of the lunch’s floral centerpieces, a keepsake for her to take home. “You could just feel the energy in the room, all this beautiful female energy.” Birmingham was there with her mother and grandmother in a show of political unity the family hasn’t always enjoyed, especially when it comes to Hillary Clinton—and they weren’t the only ones.

Billed as “The Ultimate Women’s Power Luncheon,” the event raised $1.4 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from the 820 mostly women in attendance bringing the DCCC’s money lead of its GOP counterpart to a whopping $38 million with just two weeks to go before the election. The event also featured a set by singer Carole King (including a rendition of “Sweet Seasons” where she changed the lyrics to “Some times you win; sometimes you win” instead of lose).

But the 2014 midterms, where Dems are expected to lose seats in both chambers and possibly control of the Senate, were not the elections on most women’s lips at the lunch. Cynthia Birmingham, Alanna’s mother, was there to show early support for Clinton’s anticipated 2016 presidential bid, in part to make up for not supporting her primary candidacy in 2008. “I’m so excited to support Hillary in 2016,” she says.

Birmingham wasn’t the only one. California Reps. Anna Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren, George Miller and Barbara Lee—all close allies of Pelosi—were all in enthusiastic attendance on Monday and all endorsed Obama during the primaries in 2008. Indeed, many saw then Speaker Pelosi’s call in 2008 on super delegates to respect the will of the voters in their home states, rather than endorsing the candidate of their choice, as one of the nails in the coffin of Clinton’s candidacy. Though Pelosi very carefully never endorsed either candidate in 2008.

The event was a healing one for the Birminghams as well. Ann Birmingham, Alanna’s grandmother and Cynthia’s mother-in-law, was also in approving attendance, happy to see her women kin supporting the candidate she’s long adored. “I loved and supported Hillary back in 2008 and I will love and support her in 2016,” Ann says. “I was terribly disappointed when she lost.”

But all that was forgotten on Monday with Clinton and Pelosi hugging and kissing onstage and united in their common cause to not only elect more women to Congress, where women make up less than 20%, but to start a women’s empowerment movement in politics. “When women succeed, America succeeds,” both women—and the crowd—chanted over and over throughout the program.

“For too many women, for too many families they don’t just face ceilings for their dreams,” Clinton said, referring to the 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, or the 18 million Americans who voted to make her the first female Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, she famously referenced in her concession speech, “they feel floor has collapsed beneath their feet.”

Clinton lavished praise on Pelosi’s ground-breaking leadership as the first female speaker, a post she held from 2006 until Democrats lost the House in 2010. And Pelosi started her speech saying she hoped she would soon be surpassed. “I’m frequently introduced as the highest ranking woman in U.S. office; I’d like to give up that title. And soon,” she told a roaring crowd. “If Hillary Clinton, mother and grandmother, decides to run for president she will win… and she will be one of the best prepared leaders, one of the top presidents in the Oval Office. That she happens to be a woman is a bonus and a wonderful, wonderful thing. But she happens to also be a leader of visions and values.”

Indeed, Cynthia Birmingham says she’s supporting Clinton this time around because she’s an experienced, proven leader at a time when the country most needs that experience. “No one else in the field even comes close,” she says, “Hillary just blows them all away. It’s not so much that she’s a woman, but that she’s the best person for the job.”

TIME 2014 Election

Vulnerable Democrats Run Away From Obama

Democratic Challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes And Senate Minority Leader McConnell Locked In Tight Race
Kentucky's Democratic U.S. Senate nominee, and Kentucky Secretary of State, Alison Lundergan Grimes speaks at the Fancy Farm picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky. on Aug. 2, 2014. Win McNamee—Getty Images

There's a reason the President isn't often seen on the campaign trail

In Monday night’s one and only debate for the Kentucky Senate race, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Democratic challenger refused to say whether she voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

“I have my disagreements with the President,” Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said. “The President is not on the ballot this year.” She added that it was her “constitutional right for privacy at the ballot box” to decline to name for whom she’d voted.

Though she did so clumsily and has been widely criticized for it, Grimes isn’t the only Democrat seeking a Grand Canyon of distance from Obama this campaign cycle. The President’s approval rating is at 42.6% and his disapproval rating is 10-percentage points higher at 52.3%, according to an average of national polls by Real Clear Politics. And he’s even more unpopular in states where Democrats are locked in tight races for control of the Senate like Kentucky, which he lost in 2012 by 23 points; Alaska, where he lost by 14 points; and Arkansas, which he lost by 24 points.

Democrats are hoping this election won’t be a referendum on the president, as midterm elections so often are. With just days left in the campaign, each race has become a smaller-scale war of parochial issues—most of them on which candidates can easily distance themselves from Obama.

As early as a year ago, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who is warding off a strong challenge in Arkansas, highlighted how he opposed the President’s gun control legislation in his first television ad of the cycle. “No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do,” Pryor said in the ad. “I listen to Arkansas.”

On energy, Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska both ran ads distancing themselves from Obama’s positions. “[T]he Administration’s policies are simply wrong on oil and gas production in this nation,” Landrieu said in her spot. Begich bragged that he “took on Obama” to fight for oil drilling in the Arctic and voted against the president’s “trillion-dollar tax increase.”

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado said in his first debate with Republican Rep. Cory Gardner that he is the “last person” the Obama Administration wants to see visiting the White House.

And while endangered Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan met Obama on the tarmac in North Carolina in August, going so far as kissing him on the cheek—footage that ended up in campaign commercials against her—she made clear ahead of his trip that she believes his Administration “has not yet done enough to earn the lasting trust of our veterans.” (Obama was there to deliver a speech on veterans issues.)

Even Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who isn’t up for reelection this cycle, has taken the President out to the woodshed in recent days for not doing enough to protect Americans in the wake of the financial crisis. “They protected Wall Street,” she told Salon in an interview. “Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. And it happened over and over and over.”

Meanwhile, Warren, like former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is proving to be a powerful and popular surrogate these midterms, welcome in places like Kentucky and West Virginia where Obama dare not set foot.

All of which is why Obama’s spending his weekends during the final sprint to the election day golfing, rather than on the campaign trail. He’s done a huge amount of fundraising, but so far only two campaign events for incumbent governors in Illinois and Connecticut. There are a handful of other solid blue states where Obama can help—in his native Hawaii, for example—but First Lady Michelle Obama is much more in demand than he is. Michelle—who has an approval rating of 69%, higher than both Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton at the same point in their husband’s presidencies—has campaigned for Senate hopefuls in Michigan and Iowa and a gubernatorial candidate in Maine, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And she’s scheduled to stump for gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Crist in Florida on Friday, not to mention a bevy of voter registration events in other states.

Running away from an unpopular second-term President is practically becoming a tradition in American politics. Before the 1998 midterm elections, Bill Clinton was plagued by the Monica Lewinsky scandal—though Republican overreach helped his party actually gain seats. And thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan, George W. Bush wasn’t very popular with his party in 2006, even before the financial crisis. Republicans lost both chambers of Congress that year.

“It’s a common phenomenon, running against a lame duck president,” says Prof. James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “In the last two years of his Administration, Presidents have tended to be very unpopular, having used up their political capital.”

Still, Obama bears the distinction of being so polarizing that running against him has proven successful for Democrats almost from the moment he was elected. In 2010, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin ran an ad that showed him shooting climate change legislation endorsed by Obama with a gun. That same year Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly ran ads distancing himself from the President. Both men bucked an anti-Democratic wave to get elected to the Senate.

Democrats this year are hoping to repeat their strategy. Grimes ran an ad in September that showed her shooting skeet while declaring: “I’m not Barack Obama.”

Read next: Hey, Mitt Romney Cracked a Good Joke

TIME 2014 Election

Midterm Elections See Surge in Tough-to-Lure Candidates: Young Moms

Staci Appel Iowa
Staci Appel with three of her six children in Iowa. Appel for Iowa

“It is a big change. Women in the Club”

Staci Appel is up at 5:30 every morning, rousing her six kids from their beds, getting them showered and fed breakfast—usually cereal and milk, but sometimes pancakes or scrambled eggs on special days. She and her husband, Brent Appel, a justice on the Iowa Supreme Court, pack their lunches and throw in a load or two of laundry, if there’s time.

Then, the former Iowa state senator hits the campaign trail. Appel is running for Congress, a job that will take her to Washington D.C. for most of every week if she wins. “We’ll handle it like everything else we’ve handled: as a family,” says Appel, who ran for office at her children’s encouragement and with the unflagging support of her husband. “We’re no different from any other family: juggling kids and work.”

What’s different, though, is that Appel is running for Congress at all. Hers is one of the toughest demographics for either party to recruit: a mother of young children. Until now, women have typically waited until their children were older to get into politics. On average, women enter politics four years later—at the age of 51 versus 47—than men, according for Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics. But not so this cycle: A remarkable number of young mothers are running for Congress.

“It is a big change,” says Michele Swers, a Georgetown political science professor and author of “Women in the Club.”

“Having younger women in office is a positive trend because Congress runs on seniority so these younger women will have a better chance of getting the seniority needed to become committee chairs and party leaders,” Swers says.

The first woman to give birth in Congress was Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a California Democrat, in 1973. These days, more than a dozen women in Congress have school-aged children, but it’s still a tiny percentage of the 99 women currently serving in both chambers. Democrats have nine young mothers running for Congress or governor this cycle, according to EMILY’s List, which helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, and Republicans have at least three.

Part of the problem is many mothers of young children view representing more than half-a-million people in Congress as too daunting a job to balance at a time when family obligations are the most intense. But some members—like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, the top women on the House GOP leadership team who had all three of her children in office, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who recently wrote a book encouraging young women to run—are working to change that. Both women actively court younger mothers to run, pointing to themselves as examples of healthy work-life balance. Both say the freedom of being able to set their own schedules—and essentially be their own bosses—makes the job doable for mothers.

The optics of being a young mother is also changing. In 2008, commentators openly wondered if Sarah Palin had to bandwidth to be the vice president and the mother of a special-needs infant, and in 2012 GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum openly wondered who was taking care of rival Michele Bachmann’s children while she was on the campaign trail. But this cycle, female candidates are wearing the mom label with pride.

“What is interesting is to see how women use their motherhood as a credential for office holding, instead of an impediment or barrier to office holding, as it has often been historically framed,” says Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. “In doing that, women candidates are more likely to show their children in campaign output and talk about them in messaging, contrary to previous generations where women were told to be cautious about showing their young children as it might raise voter questions about how or if they will be able to balance the conflicting demands of politics and parenthood.”

Indeed, some say, it’s almost too much pride. Michigan Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land was mocked last week by liberals on Twitter for so often appending her statements with, “as a mom.”

But for Appel, those words are partly why she’s running. In the state Senate she helped pass universal pre-K for all Iowans and toughen standards for children’s seats in cars and texting while driving.

“We bring a different perspective to the table,” Appel says, “one that I believe Congress could benefit from.”

Read next: How 2014 Became the ‘Gotcha’ Election

TIME 2014 Election

Democrats See Obamacare Silver Lining in 2014 Playbook

From fierce opposition to a "fading issue"

A year ago, the health care reform law was an albatross around the Democrats’ collective neck. Its disastrous roll out dominated headlines. Republicans gleefully predicted they would build on their House majority and take back the Senate in the midterm elections thanks to the unpopularity of President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

Republicans may well still pick up House seats and win the Senate—but if they do, it won’t be because of Obamacare. The “incredibly fading issue,” as U.S. News and World Report recently called it, it has become “background noise” in an election dominated by parochial interests, as Politico put it. Indeed, some Democrats are going so far as to predict that Obamacare could end up a silver lining come Election Day.

The Affordable Care Act is now the second-most important issue for unmarried women, according to a new poll by Democracy Corps for the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, a key demographic Democrats are hoping to turn out this November. Unmarried women vote reliably Democratic, but tend not to turn out in midterm elections. If Democrats can turn out that one group at the same levels they voted in 2012, forecasts indicate Democrats would keep the Senate and take back the House.

That kind of turnout is highly unlikely. But every little bit counts as Democrats try to fend off the kind of wave election that drowned them in 2010. That year, a genuine backlash against Obamacare helped Democrats lose the women’s vote for the first time since Ronald Reagan, and the House with it. In most battleground Senate races, Democratic candidates are winning by double-digits with women, particularly unmarried women

The law is also popular with minorities, another demographic with which Republicans have struggled. Some 74% of minorities support the Affordable Care Act, according to the Democracy Corps poll. “The health care law has become much more important as a reason why people are voting for Democrats,” says Stan Greenberg, a co-founder of Democracy Corps. “The threat of repeal appears to be giving unmarried women and minority voters a reason to vote.”

Republicans seem to have felt the tide receding. In April, Obamacare was the subject of 54% all political TV ads; by July that number had fallen to 27%, according to a July report from nonpartisan analysts Kantar Media CMAG. “Obamacare will not be the most important issue,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres, co-wrote in an August memo outlining 57 alternate lines of attack for outside spending groups such as Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network.

Still, opponents still use the issue far more than supporters; overall this election cycle, anti-Obamacare groups have spent 15 times as much on ads than groups supporting the law, the Kantar Media CMAG found. “Did Obamacare dominate the midterms as some Republicans had predicted? Definitely not,” says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “But has it been used widely by GOP candidates for House and Senate in their TV ads and on the stump? A resounding yes. And that makes sense. Midterm elections are low-turnout battles between the two party bases. Any hot button issue that gets partisan voters to cast a ballot is used extensively. Obamacare still causes Republicans’ blood pressure to rise.”

The Affordable Care Act almost surely remains a net negative for Democrats. “It helped bake voters’ opinions into the general election cake,” says Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “The early advertising effort also kept vulnerable Democratic incumbents on the defensive. This was particularly helpful in states in which Republicans had primaries.”

Support for Obamacare remains in the red, with 51.1% opposing the measure and only 38.7% supporting it, according to a Real Clear Politics average of national polls. Which is why the handful of positive ads Democratic candidates have attempted to run on behalf of the law—most notably in Arkansas and West Virginia—have been resoundingly mocked by Republicans.

But all the negative attention paid to Obamacare also had another side effect for Democrats. The four states that have seen the highest per capita anti-Obamacare ad spending—Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina—have conversely seen higher rates of enrollment, according to a July study by the Brookings Institution. “In the states where more anti-ACA ads are aired, residents were on average more likely to believe that Congress will repeal the ACA in the near future,” wrote the study’s author, Niam Yaraghi. “People who believe that subsidized health insurance may soon disappear could have a greater willingness to take advantage of this one time opportunity.”

TIME 2014 Election

Bill Clinton Makes Homecoming Trip a Rescue Mission

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton speaks during the closing plenary session of the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative in New York City on Sept. 24, 2014. GSA/Demotix/Corbis

The former President is playing big in several races in his home state

Correction appended, Oct. 7.

Three months into his bid to represent Arkansas’s Fourth District in Congress, James Lee Witt got a call from former President Bill Clinton. Witt was outside a town called Magnolia, and Clinton proceeded to rattle off like baseball stats how much he’d won Magnolia by and who would be good to connect with there.

“He then told me every county he’d won and every county he’d lost and all the percentages,” recalls Witt, who served as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for all eight years of Clinton’s presidency. “He still remembers the people who supported him and those that didn’t. But if you supported him, you have no truer friend.”

Witt should know. He’s banking on Clinton’s help to win in November. Clinton’s calls to Witt happened every few months in the beginning of the campaign. Now that the election is just a month away, the calls are more frequent, as are the former President’s visits.

And Witt, who spoke to TIME last spring, isn’t the only candidate Clinton has a personal tie to running in Arkansas these days. His former driver during his 1982 gubernatorial campaign, Rep. Mike Ross, is running for governor. Sen. Mark Pryor, whose father was a mentor to Clinton, is in the reelection battle of his career. And Patrick Henry Hays, who was an Arkansas traveler for Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid, is running for Congress in Arkansas’ Second District. All of which is why Clinton is kicking off his midterm sprint in his home state Monday and Tuesday with five events across Arkansas.

For embattled Democrats, Clinton is worth his weight in political gold. “When he was elected President, he never left,” Vince Insalaco, chair of the Arkansas Democratic Party, told TIME in May. “He’s got some wonderful coattails in Arkansas. He’s a giant energizer of the base and he’s able to bring a lot of money out.”

His four candidates will need it in an election trending away from Democrats and President Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Arkansas. The state, largely due to Clinton’s efforts, hasn’t tacked as far in the GOP’s direction as the rest of the south.

Still, Clinton might be Sisyphus this cycle with the races leaning decidedly Republican in recent weeks. Witt’s coveted seat is rated “likely Republican” and the seat Hays is seeking is ranked “lean Republican” by Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election forecaster. The same group ranks Arkansas’ gubernatorial and Senate races “toss ups,” but GOP Rep. Tom cotton leads Pryor by 3.7 percentage points and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson leads Ross by 5.6 percentage points, according to averages of Arkansas polls by Real Clear Politics.

Republicans downplayed the importance of Clinton’s influence in Arkansas. “I’m not worried about Bill Clinton’s support for Mark Pryor,” Cotton told ABC News on Sunday. “I’m worried about Mark Pryor’s support for Barack Obama.” And banker French Hill, who is running against Hays, told Roll Call this summer that, “President Clinton has a lot of friends in Arkansas. … But I don’t believe it will have a major impact in this race because I believe the electorate is looking for somebody who’s got a business background, that’s a conservative person to help represent the district.”

For Clinton, this isn’t just about politics. Not only is he personally invested in the four Democrats, but Hutchinson served as one of the Republican floor managers of Clinton’s 1998 impeachment trial in the House. Which is why his involvement goes beyond rallies and fundraisers: He calls all four candidates on a regular basis to strategize with them on how to win in a state he prides himself on still knowing intimately. After all, the airport, his Presidential library and a fair number of roads across the state are named for Arkansas’ only son to be elected to the nation’s highest office. “He’s a terrific campaigner, excellent fundraiser and premier strategist,” says Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas’s School of Public Affairs. “He is very valuable to Democrats, their biggest and best asset on the trail.”

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the chair of the Arkansas Democratic Party. He is Vince Insalaco. The original version of this story also incorrectly identified French Hill’s opponent. He is Patrick Henry Hays..

TIME 2014 Election

Meet the Woman Who Could Keep Control of the Senate Up for Grabs

Amanda Swafford Libertarian Georgia Senate
Courtesy Swafford for US Senate

Libertarian Amanda Swafford considers forcing a Jan. 6 run-off in the Peach State’s Senate race a victory for third party candidates everywhere

There is a nightmare scenario that keeps most politicos working on both sides of the aisle up at night: after the midterm elections, and even through the anticipated Dec. 6 run off in Louisiana, control of the Senate likely won’t be decided until Jan. 6, the date a run-off in Georgia will take place, if any one candidate fails to muster 50% of the vote. It is this scenario that Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford, who regularly pulls 5% in most polls, relishes.

“In that situation, if we did force a runoff,” Swafford tells TIME, “I’d say that’s a clear mandate from people of Georgia for a small government and less involvement in people’s lives.”

Small government has hardly been a theme in the race between Republican businessman David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn, who are competing to fill retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss’s seat. The two have spent millions firing at one another: Perdue accused Nunn of funding terrorists through her work with the Bush Family Foundation and Nunn said Perdue lost jobs and discriminated against female workers as CEO of Dollar General.

“If that nastiness continues in a run-off, the folks responsible for the run-off will probably just stay home,” Swafford says of her supporters. “And they will have to find new voters in order to win and they will be exceptionally hard.”

Perdue now leads Nunn by 3.4 points, according to an average of Georgia polls by Real Clear Politics. But Perdue has only broken the 50% threshold in one out five of the most recent polls, and he’ll need at least 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off. Swafford’s “mere presence on the ballot creates the potential for a run-off,” says Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races at the non-partisan Cook Political Report. “Overall, Libertarians tend to draw more from Republicans, so she is a bigger problem for Perdue than Nunn.”

But Swafford says that may not be the case with her voters, who she maintains are open to whomever makes the best case. Swafford isn’t even sure she’d caucus with the Republicans if, by some miracle, she were to be elected.

And so an unlikely figure could impact national politics. As of the end of June, Swafford had raised $7,683 for her senatorial bid. The single 37-year-old has kept her day job as a paralegal as she has mounted her campaign. “It makes for a lot of late nights and early mornings,” she says, “but I believe electing someone to the Senate like me, who knows what it’s like to work a job, have a boss, and make ends meet on a regular budget, would bring a valuable perspective to the Senate.”

Swafford is pro-choice and for the legalization of marijuana. And, like most Libertarians, she’s deeply suspicious of President Obama’s engagement abroad, particularly in Syria and Iraq. “Last year, the President wanted to bomb Syria for their chemical weapons, now he’s asking for their help to defeat another enemy,” she says. (Obama hasn’t actually asked Syrian strongman Bashar Assad for help in defeating ISIS.)

Swafford benefits from Georgia’s strong Libertarian history. It is home to 2008 Libertarian Presidential candidate Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman. And that same year, John Monds made history by becoming the first Libertarian candidate to draw more than a million votes—statewide or nationally—though he still lost his attempt to become Georgia Public Service Commissioner. Four years later, Libertarian David Staples made another bid for the same office and again broke the one million-vote threshold, though again fell short. But, unlike Swafford, both of those men faced only one rival from a major party, not two.

Swafford says she had no choice but to run statewide: Georgia’s ballot access laws for third party candidates for state races are some of the most restrictive in the country. “So, it’s either run for city council, or statewide,” says Swafford, who was elected to her hometown city council in Flowery Branch in 2010. If they lose this Senate seat, Georgia Republicans who control the state legislature might consider rethinking those restrictive third party laws. Because if politicians like Swafford can’t clinch state office, spoiling a statewide race is the second best—and clearly effective—option to get their ideas out. It turns out, some politics might be better off local.

TIME 2014 midterm elections

Drugs, Minimum Wage and Gambling: Inside 2014’s $1 Billion-Plus Ballot Initiatives

Demand for marijuana edibles is pushing several Colorado manufacturers to expand their facilities or move to larger quarters.
Steve Herin, Master Grower at Incredibles, works on repotting marijuana plants in the grow facility on Wednesday, August 13, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. Kent Nishimura—Denver Post via Getty Images

Bored with the midterms? There’s a lot of (expensive) drama on the ballot that doesn’t involve candidates

The 2014 elections are shaping up to be the most expensive in history, not for electoral campaigns, but for ballot initiatives. More than $1 billion has already been spent on them, according to the National Institute of Money in State Politics. And all that money could swing some key races.

Studies have shown controversial ballot initiatives can boost turnout as much as 8% in midterm elections, which typically see lower turnout than polling during presidential elections. Since Oregon first kicked off ballot initiatives in the early 1900’s, the practice has grown steadily — that is, until this year. Despite the increase in spending, 2014 actually has the least number of total initiatives — only 155 in 41 states, down from 188 in 2012—since 1988, reflecting state efforts to limit legislating by ballot.

Some of the millions already spent were intended to keep certain measures off the ballot. In Alaska, for example, oil and gas companies spent $170 per voter to block a bid to raise oil and gas taxes. In Colorado, energy companies also spent millions to keep fracking initiatives off the ticket. Also not making the cut this year: gay marriage and a push to break California into six states that, while strange, gained a lot of attention early on.

Perhaps the main issue on ballots nationwide this cycle is marijuana. Two states — Oregon and Alaska — plus the District of Columbia have initiatives to follow Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational marijuana. But it’s a push to make Florida the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana that could impact an electoral race. Former Democratic Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s bid to get his old gubernatorial seat back could see a boost from the measure, as left-leaning voters tend to support marijuana reform. Crist allies have already spent $4 million on the initiative with opponents, including incumbent Florida Gov. Republican Rick Scott and Sheldon Adelson, spending $2.5 million to defeat it thus far.

Another big issue is minimum wage, with four red states—Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota—considering raising the minimum wage. Since 2002, all 10 ballot initiatives to raise state minimum wages have passed, and polling shows these initiatives look like they have good shots at approval as well. The pushes could help embattled Democratic incumbent Senators Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mark Begich in Alaska.

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, another Democratic incumbent fighting to keep his seat, is hoping that a personhood amendment —which defines life as beginning from the moment of conception — will help him stick around. His opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, also opposes the amendment, but has voiced support for personhood initiatives in the past, creating an opening Udall has been exploiting. North Dakota has a similar initiative on the ballot, and Tennessee has a measure that would allow the state legislature to amend the state constitution to strip out abortion rights.

However, some of the most expensive ballot issues are not national ones. In California, two initiatives — one to increase the limit of non-economic malpractice damages from $250,000 to $1.1 million and another requiring state approval of changes in insurance rates — could see as much as $100 million in combined spending to sway voters. And Oregon and Colorado have controversial initiatives mandating the labeling of certain foods that contain genetically modified organisms. Last year, companies like Pepsi, Coca Cola and Monsanto spent $22 million defeating a similar push in Washington where proponents spent $9 million trying to pass it.

Oregon also has a controversial immigration initiative that would uphold a law allowing four-year driver’s licenses for those who cannot prove legal presence in the U.S. Another big-spending item is a spate of gambling initiatives in seven states expected to draw more than $100 million, including a hard-fought initiative in Massachusetts that would repeal a 2011 law allowing gambling resorts that would halt construction on sites.

A gun rights conundrum could happen in Washington, which looks poised to pass two initiatives that countermand one another. One would require universal background checks for all guns, and another forbids more extensive background checks than those required at the federal level. Officials say such a situation has never happened before, and no one is sure what would happen if both pass. Also on guns, Alabama is also looking to become the third state after Louisiana and Missouri to pass a “fundamental right to bear arms,” making it harder to restrict firearm access.

Alabama is also seeking to become the eighth state to forbid state’s recognition of laws violating its policies, including all foreign law. This measure is a follow up to a bill introduced by state Sen. Gerald Allen last year that specifically references Sharia law.

Missouri and Connecticut are looking to joining 33 other states and the District of Columbia in early voting.

And, finally, Maine is looking to ban bear baiting, trapping or the use of dogs to hunt bears. Long live Smokey.

TIME 2016 Election

Hillary Clinton Calls for a Women’s ‘Movement’ Ahead of Elections

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Former Sec. of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's annual fundraising Steak Fry, Sept. 14, 2014, in Indianola, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall—AP

“These issues have to be in the life blood of this election and any election”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday called for a women’s “movement” on economic issues ahead of the midterm elections.

“These issues have to be in the life blood of this election and any election,” the presumed 2016 Democratic front-runner said. “We need people to feel that they’re part of a movement, that it’s not just part of an election, it’s part of a movement to really empower themselves, their families and take the future over in a way that is going to give us back the country that we care so much about.”

Clinton was speaking on a panel at the liberal Washington think tank Center for American Progress.

Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who shared the stage with Clinton on Thursday, have pushed to make women’s economic issues the forefront of the party’s 2014 campaign. Democrats lost the female vote in 2010 for the first time since the Reagan era, and with it control of the House and six Senate seats. They are trying to avoid a similar Republican wave this year. “Why now? What is our strategy? Well, it’s because we want women to vote,” Pelosi told the crowd.

The issue is also near and dear to Clinton’s heart. Many of her advisors from her failed 2008 campaign say that, in retrospect, she should have emphasized the historic nature of her campaign more. Clinton lost women to Barack Obama in nearly half the primaries they fought.

As Secretary of State, Clinton focused on bolstering international support for women and girls. In her second political appearance after resigning from that office more than a year ago, Clinton kept her focus on those topics. “We talk about a glass ceiling, but these [minimum wage] women don’t even have a secure floor under them,” she said at the time.

The Democratic leaders lamented Thursday what they called Republican obstruction of the women’s economic agenda in Congress. The GOP has blocked Democratic efforts to raise the minimum wage—which disproportionally affects women—to $10.10 an hour, to fund universal pre-Kindergarten and other expanded child care efforts, paid maternity and paternity leaves and paid medical leave.

Clinton noted that by stymying women’s access to the workforce, the U.S. leaves 10% of increased GDP “on the table.”

“The argument is grounded in reality, but unfortunately the reality is not the context that these decisions are being made,” Clinton said. “Unfortunately, the Congress… is living in a reality-free zone. Politicians have to listen, and if they don’t it’s at their own peril.”

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