VILONIA, Arkansas (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday toured the devastation wreaked by tornadoes that slashed through parts of Arkansas, along with a senator whose re-election is key to Democrats’ hanging on to control of the U.S. Senate.
Some Democratic senators in tough races this November have distanced themselves from Obama, but Senator Mark Pryor, whose state has tilted Republican in recent years, welcomed Obama to Arkansas and stood by his side as he spoke about the tragedy.
Obama’s Marine One helicopter provided the president with an aerial view of the destruction caused by a powerful EF-4 tornado, with winds of at least 180 miles an hour, and other deadly twisters that ripped central Arkansas last week, killing 15 people and injuring more than 150.
On the ground, Obama met families of the victims at Vilonia City Hall and walked down a street in a neighborhood whose houses were blown to pieces.
Piles of boards and scattered bricks were all that remained of some homes on one side of the street, while on the other, several brick structures were largely intact.
“The federal government is going to be right here until we get this community rebuilt,” Obama said, his shirtsleeves rolled up in the spring heat.
He said Vilonia had been hit in the past by deadly storms. “This town has seen more than its fair share of tragedy,” Obama said, describing a storm that leveled parts of the town three years ago. “But folks here are tough,” he said.
Democrats see Pryor’s race as critical to their bid to fend off a strong Republican challenge and hang on to control of the Senate in November 4 congressional elections.
The party that controls the White House typically loses seats in midterm elections, but Democrats are fighting to buck the historical odds.
Pryor, 51, holds a narrow lead over Republican challenger Tom Cotton, while a few months ago he was trailing. Pryor’s former Senate Democratic colleague, Blanche Lincoln, lost her re-election bid in Arkansas in 2010 by 20 percentage points.
Obama was on the first leg of a three-day trip in which he will be the headline speaker at five Democratic fundraisers in California. The first was set for Los Angeles on Wednesday night.
In addition, Obama was to accept a humanitarian award from director Steven Spielberg at the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, a Holocaust museum founded by Spielberg after he made “Schindler’s List.”
Obama has warned Democrats that they must rally and turn out the vote in order to hold the Senate and pick up seats in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Republicans have tried to gain a political advantage by campaigning on the problems that beset the rollout of Obama’s signature healthcare law last year.
Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Mohammad Zargham