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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / Election Analysis

Candidates Become Partisan Stereotypes in Super PAC Era

This may be remembered as the year that candidates lost control and politics stopped being local.

Reps. Jim Renacci and Betty Sutton of Ohio(Jill Lawrence)

photo of Reid Wilson
November 4, 2012

WADSWORTH, Ohio -- This is the story of a Republican and a Democrat, fighting over a Congressional seat. That their names are Jim Renacci and Betty Sutton, and that the district lies just south of Cleveland, almost qualify as pieces of extraneous information.

The only information in the previous two sentences that matters is that each of the two candidates represents one of the two national parties. Whether in this small town just outside of Akron, or in Palm Springs, Calif., or in battles for Senate seats held in Massachusetts, Arizona and almost everywhere in between, the identities of the candidates themselves matter less now than they have in decades. To watch the advertisements blanketing the airwaves, every Democrat is an Obamacare-loving big spender. Every Republican is a Medicare-slashing tea partier.

The 2012 elections have been marked by a startling diffusion of political power away from traditional hubs and toward outside groups -- in both the financial and political sense. The two parties, which have traditionally held sway over the candidates who gain their nominations and the money that finances them, have become shells of their former selves. And perhaps more notably, the infusion of money raised and spent independently of campaigns for the White House, the House and the Senate means the candidates themselves are less able to determine the direction their campaigns take, and are more prone to being distracted from their original goals.

This may be the year when we finally bury Tip O'Neill's old saying that all politics is local. Because in races up and down the ballot, there is now a distinctly national feel. The advertisements run in Florida's Panhandle level the same charges and counter-charges as those run in Boston, or Denver, or in California's Inland Empire. And as contests become national, rather than local, the individual candidates who once were able to appeal across party lines -- and the parties themselves -- have lost control.

There was a time, not too long ago, when a race between two incumbents drawn together after a redistricting cycle would follow a familiar script: They would raise big bucks from their allies in Washington, come home and beat the hell out of each other. Now, as Renacci and Sutton fight over the remnants of their respective districts, thrown together by redistricting, their battles are being fought for them.

The evidence is on the airwaves. Renacci has spent almost $1.5 million on television commercials so far, less than the National Republican Congressional Committee ($1.54 million) and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with close ties to House Speaker John Boehner ($2.8 million). Sutton has spent $1.2 million on her own ads, less than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ($1.58 million), the House Majority Project, a Democratic super PAC ($1.27 million) and AFSCME ($1.3 million). At a moment when Ohio voters are deciding between the two incumbents, those incumbents are having less of an impact on their own campaigns than ever before.

Sutton is on the air with a positive advertisement, an unusually late effort to boost her favorable rating after an outside onslaught that decimated it. Renacci declined to fulfill a reservation for an advertising blitz over the campaign's final two weeks, Republicans said, because he couldn't raise the money he had expected to pull in.

"There's so much clutter right now," Renacci said in a brief interview at a Republican Party office in a strip mall here, under Wadsworth's town water tower. "We're on the two-yard line, about ready to finish the game. Two days left, it's about door-knocking."

It's a pattern being repeated around the country. "No one wants to be complicated or break the mold. Both sides embrace their party stereotype," said Blaise Hazelwood, a Republican strategist who specializes in microtargeting. "It's hard to reach across the aisle when you are viewed as a stereotype."

Some of the smartest, most effective and best campaigns run this year still won't be able to overcome a political environment made more adverse by the increasingly partisan atmosphere. Sen. Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who scored an upset in a special election in 2010, is likely to lose his bid for a full term. Even Republicans acknowledge that North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, has run a brilliant race that has effectively separated her from the national party. Still, on Tuesday, Heitkamp is expected to lose to Rep. Rick Berg, despite Berg's unpopularity and because of the R after his name.

In both cases, and in dozens of others around the country, the best-run campaign simply cannot overcome an electorate divided down party lines, a divide exacerbated by the heated presidential contest. President Obama is all but certain to win Brown's Massachusetts by 20 points or more. Republican nominee Mitt Romney will run up a similar number in Heitkamp's North Dakota. The vast majority of voters are simply unwilling to split their tickets between candidates for different offices of different parties.

The number of Senate Democratic candidates who are all but certain to win states Romney will win stands at one -- and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill will only survive because her opponent, Rep. Todd Akin, virtually disqualified himself with ill-advised comments about rape and abortion. The number of Senate Republican candidates who will win in states where Obama has an unassailable lead is zero.

To be sure, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana remains tied with Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller has a lead against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who faces an investigation from the House Ethics Committee. But Tester's hold on his seat is a coin flip, while Heller backers quietly fret over a Democratic turnout machine that could drag Berkley, baggage and all, across the finish line.

Even the two presidential campaigns, both of which are raising and spending record sums in the battle for the White House, are largely at the mercy of forces outside their control. The virtually stagnant economic recovery, which is only lately showing signs of speeding up, has forced Obama to run a campaign uncomfortably at odds with his 2008 message of hope, change and abandoning politics as usual. Obama's early, aggressive and relentless onslaught has forced Romney to defend himself from Democratic charges that he is a heartless corporate raider who loves to fire his workers and outsource jobs to China.

There have been rare moments in which a candidate has been able to alter the outcome of his or her own race -- though usually adversely. Debates, long a mostly ignored exercise in civic duty, have become causes of significant volatility. Until the first presidential debate, in which Romney offered himself as a plausible alternative to a tired and seemingly disinterested Obama, the Republican's campaign was flailing. Obama's weak performance startled Democrats, who watched his poll numbers -- and those of many Senate and House candidates -- plummet almost overnight.

"For decades, [debates] were a side show. Never really influenced elections. This cycle, across the board, they have become the newest popular reality TV shows. People make their popcorn and sit down to watch them for entertainment and to form their voting opinions," said Fred Davis, the Republican admaker. "Should Romney win, his momentum shift -- caused almost entirely by a single debate -- will get the credit."

Obama isn't the only candidate to suffer from an ill-timed off-night. In Indiana, Republican Senate nominee Richard Mourdock used the final debate of his race to mull God's plan for a child conceived by rape, comments that have dominated the state's news coverage and probably irreparably harmed his chances of winning. In Illinois, Rep. Joe Walsh made his own comments on abortion after a debate with Democratic rival Tammy Duckworth, comments that do not play well in a moderate suburban Chicago district.

Party machines in Washington have long held far more control over the candidates who win their nominations than most activists outside the Beltway know. Washington Republicans and Democrats alike have long signaled to donors which potential Senate and House nominees deserve support, effectively choosing a candidate at will. But over the last half decade, Republicans in particular have lost much of their influence with their own activist class; the tea party movement, itself something of a backlash against President George W. Bush's terms in office, sees the hand of Washington on a candidate as a scarlet letter.

The fallout from McCain-Feingold legislation in the early years of last decade, which eliminated the soft money national parties once used to build their organizations and register voters, and from court cases in recent years that have allowed corporations, unions and individuals alike to write seven-figure checks on their own has meant the parties can't even compete with outside groups on equal financial footing. Republicans and Democrats in Washington frequently refer to the American Crossroads network of organizations, run by former Bush adviser Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan, as a shadow RNC.

"Gone is the time when an incumbent can destroy his opponent between the primary and convention. The institutionalization of super PACs has now made that impossible," Duncan said. When he chaired the RNC, Duncan had $30 million to spend to help Sen. John McCain between the time he wrapped up his nomination, in March 2008, and the Republican National Convention, in August. This year, Duncan's Crossroads groups were more effective in giving Romney cover.

Renacci is favored to win his redrawn district on Tuesday. But the candidate himself has had little to do with that fact. Instead, outside groups are making his arguments for him, and his voters are so polarized that they are unlikely to split their ballots between the two parties. To his credit, Renacci has not said anything horribly offensive during debates with Sutton.

That a debate is one of the few areas in which candidates can influence their own destinies speaks to just how much control they -- and the party organizations they belong to -- have lost.

 

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