Puppies: The Newest Prop in Midterm Candidates’ Closing Arguments

After all the nasty ads this cycle, politicians are trying to soften their images in the home stretch in a particularly fluffy way.

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National Journal
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Rebecca Nelson
Oct. 29, 2014, 9:14 a.m.

With the midterm elec­tions less than a week away, politi­cians have re­sor­ted to a de­cidedly cuddly ad strategy: pup­pies.

It’s been a sea­son of par­tic­u­larly bit­ing and re­cord-break­ingly ex­pens­ive cam­paign ads, and can­did­ates are us­ing the dwind­ling time be­fore the elec­tion to soften their battle-worn im­ages. Rep. Tom Cot­ton, the Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger for the Sen­ate in Arkan­sas, is just the latest politi­cian tout­ing his love of cute dogs. In a spot re­leased last week, he la­ments petty at­tack ads, then brings out the big guns—or, in this case, a small dog: Cow­boy, his wife’s fluffy white puppy.

In the ad, Cot­ton doesn’t get in­to his op­pon­ents’ claims that he’s against farm­ers, storm vic­tims, or sick kids. But he’s sure to make his views on pup­pies well-known, just in case voters in Arkan­sas have any doubts: “I do love pup­pies.” Whew.

In Ken­tucky, a vi­cious Sen­ate race has racked up a slew of neg­at­ive spots, with Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes con­stantly vol­ley­ing at­tacks at each oth­er. While both camps have kept bari­tone voice-over act­ors and com­posers with a pen­chant for omin­ous scores in busi­ness throughout the cycle, Mc­Con­nell’s latest ad may sig­nal a shift­ing mes­sage.

Pok­ing fun at him­self for strug­gling to make a com­mer­cial, Mc­Con­nell takes a meta turn in the spot, hear­ing goofy com­mer­cial pitches from his ad­visers. Though he nixes hav­ing a talk­ing baby, he shows what a chill dude he is in the fi­nal scene, where, sur­roun­ded by floppy-eared blood­hounds, he chuckles and gives the pups a good scratch be­hind their ears.

Earli­er this month, an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an, Ari­zona’s Martha Mc­Sally, as­ser­ted the all-im­port­ant point that she too loves pup­pies. At least, she doesn’t dis­like them. Her ad de­cries the so-called lies told by her op­pon­ent, Demo­crat Rep. Ron Barber, and em­ploys a ca­ri­ca­ture of a Barber op­er­at­ive who claims she’ll des­troy So­cial Se­cur­ity and that she hates apple pie. To the ac­cus­a­tion that she “dis­likes” pup­pies, Mc­Sally holds up a small, squeal­ing dog and re­bukes, “Watch it.”

Politi­cians have long used pup­pies to so­lid­i­fy their soft-side cred. In 2006, Mi­chael Steele, a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate for the Sen­ate in Mary­land, as­sured voters he loved pup­pies, trot­ting out a Bo­ston ter­ri­er for the re­veal­ing an­nounce­ment. Richard Nix­on’s 1952 vice pres­id­en­tial cam­paign set the gold stand­ard for pup­pies-as-hu­man­izers in his clas­sic “Check­ers” speech, an emo­tion­al ap­peal to fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans to keep him on Dwight Eis­en­hower’s tick­et.

But pup­pies aren’t al­ways used to take the edge off politi­cians. In 2010, Illinois Gov­ernor Pat Quinn ac­cused Sen. Bill Brady, his Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent, of be­ing a puppy mass-mur­der­er; the dis­turb­ing spot even showed squeal­ing dogs in a gas cham­ber.

In such a nasty cycle, all politi­cians are well served by show­ing a kinder side. Re­pub­lic­ans, though, seem to be the only can­did­ates who’ve em­ployed pup­pies to do that this cycle. So far at least. Per­haps the GOP should shift their fo­cus from win­ning the “war on wo­men” to cap­tur­ing the ever-elu­sive puppy vote.


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