WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has no plans to campaign on behalf of the underdog Democrat in an uphill battle against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and is weighing how much help to give his party's scandal-enmeshed candidate for governor of Virginia, where Democrats are more bullish about winning.
It's the type of delicate, race-by-race calculation the White House repeatedly will have to make in the 2014, when Obama's own legacy will be on the line. Next fall, voters will decide whether to elect a Congress that will help Obama achieve his goals for his final two years in office, or whether to elect one that will block him at every turn.
The president is a huge draw for Democratic candidates, his presence all but guaranteeing they will bring in big dollars and recruit volunteers in Democratic-leaning states and districts. That explains why they're seeking his help now, more than a year before the midterm congressional elections.
"They're all sending in their requests -- 'Go here, go there,'" said Craig Smith, a White House political director under President Bill Clinton. "At the end of the day, it's this mix: How can I be helpful? What's the timing? Who do I have relationships with that I owe?"
Indeed, with only limited time for campaigning, Obama plans to get involved, both this year and next, only in close races where his efforts could realistically put the Democrat over the finish line, said a Democratic official involved with Obama's political plans who wasn't authorized to discuss strategy and requested anonymity.
This year, Democrats are quietly conceding they'll probably lose in New Jersey, where Barbara Buono, the Democrat, dramatically trails Christie in polling in a state that leans heavily Democratic. That means an Obama visit isn't likely unless the race tightens, the official said.
But in Virginia, surveys show Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a neck-and-neck race for governor, and Democrats are eager to show that what was once a conservative stronghold is now winnable.
Still, there are risks if Obama appears in Virginia, where McAuliffe's campaign has been rocked by a federal probe into an electric car company he started.
Even so, the official said, Obama may still help McAuliffe, who raised more than $500,000 to help Obama win re-election. Plus, the Democrat could win. McAuliffe's Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, is mired in his own scandal. And Obama could help drive up turnout among minorities in the Washington suburbs.
First lady Michelle Obama has already campaigned for McAuliffe, and in June, Vice President Joe Biden stood side by side with the Democrat, blasting Cuccinelli at a major fundraiser for Virginia Democrats.
The stakes will be far higher for Obama next year, when all 435 House seats, one-third of the Senate and three dozen governors' races will be on the ballot. Up for grabs will be control of the closely divided Senate, where Democrats are defending a hefty 21 seats and will lose the majority if Republicans pick up six of them, and the House, where history shows the president's party tends to lose seats during his sixth year in office.
Breaking that trend is a big concern for Obama, whose legislative priorities have been stymied time and again by the Republican-controlled House.
"I will get a lot more done with a Democratic House, and I sure need to keep a Democratic Senate," Obama said earlier this summer at a Democratic fundraiser in Los Angeles.
In previous years, Obama's efforts to help Democratic candidates have been limited, fueling criticism within the party that the president cared more about his own legacy than about building the Democratic Party. He has pledged to intensify his efforts for 2014, and already he has held or committed to at least 20 fundraisers for the national party and for the House and Senate committees that work to elect Democratic candidates.
In the Obama White House, a cadre of senior aides and political minds will be making the decisions about where to campaign in 2014, including chief of staff Denis McDonough, polling guru David Simas and deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco. Obama's senior advisers, Dan Pfeiffer and Valerie Jarrett, will also be involved.
Candidates who don't make the cut for an in-person campaign stop will have other opportunities to tap into Obama's well of political support. Biden and Mrs. Obama will also be campaigning for Democrats, complemented by social media, email lists, voter data and online videos.
Another factor for the White House to consider: With Obama's own approval ratings hovering below 50 percent, he can't be helpful in all places.
In fact, of the roughly 10 competitive Senate races next year, almost all are in states Obama lost last year. In conservative-leaning states like West Virginia and South Dakota, Democratic retirements have created prime pick-up opportunities for the GOP, while in Louisiana, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is bracing for a tough re-election fight. Vulnerable Democrats in those states know a photo op with Obama only gives Republicans the opportunity to argue Democrats are lapdogs for the president.