Are Some Senate Democrats Too Likable to Vote Out?

Republicans are hoping to make races a referendum on policy, not personality.

Warner: "Look at Simpson-Bowles."
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
March 24, 2014, 1 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans are count­ing on a fa­vor­able en­vir­on­ment and tar­get-rich map to carry them to a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity in 2015. But stand­ing between them and vic­tory are a slew of Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents who, while vul­ner­able, have one im­port­ant ad­vant­age: People like them.

There’s no bet­ter ex­ample than in New Hamp­shire, home to one of the coun­try’s most eagerly an­ti­cip­ated races after Scott Brown made a de facto cam­paign de­clar­a­tion earli­er this month against Demo­crat­ic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. The former GOP sen­at­or from Mas­sachu­setts is a strong can­did­ate in his own right, well-known and cap­able of rais­ing mil­lions of dol­lars. But his op­pon­ent is no or­din­ary in­cum­bent: She’s a former six-year gov­ernor whose ten­ure stretches back dec­ades in a small state where voters get to know their elec­ted of­fi­cials well.

And she has the poll num­bers to back it up: Des­pite her vote for Pres­id­ent Obama’s deeply un­pop­u­lar health care law, half of New Hamp­shire’s adults re­gard Shaheen pos­it­ively, ac­cord­ing to a WMUR Gran­ite State poll from Janu­ary. (Only 34 per­cent viewed her un­fa­vor­ably.) In oth­er words, she’s in a far dif­fer­ent place polit­ic­ally than the last Demo­crat­ic wo­man Brown took down to earn a place in the Sen­ate.

“He’s go­ing to find she’s no Martha Coakley,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an at­tor­ney gen­er­al. “This is a per­son people in this state know really well and are very com­fort­able with.”

Re­pub­lic­ans should be en­cour­aged that chal­lengers like Brown have signed up to take on Demo­crat­ic law­makers des­pite their pop­ular­ity — an in­dic­a­tion that they think a na­tion­al mood sour on Demo­crats will trump the daunt­ing pro­spect of tak­ing on well-en­trenched in­cum­bents. But GOP strategists warn that these chal­lengers face a more com­plic­ated path to vic­tory, one that will force them to care­fully cal­ib­rate a strategy that can sim­ul­tan­eously cri­tique their op­pon­ents but do so without re­ly­ing on an as­sault on the Demo­crats’ char­ac­ter.

“You can ar­gue wheth­er she’s too close to the pres­id­ent or Harry Re­id, but there’s no ques­tion the people have known her, known her fam­ily, for 30 years,” Rath said. “It’s go­ing to be hard to make her in­to a per­son who’s not likable.”

Re­pub­lic­ans face a sim­il­ar obstacle in Vir­gin­ia where Sen. Mark Warner, a former gov­ernor, awaits. Sen. Mark Ud­all, whose fam­ily name is le­gendary in Demo­crat­ic circles, is up for reelec­tion in Col­or­ado. Both have the type of repu­ta­tion that makes them more than just a gen­er­ic mem­ber of their party. Warner has long in­cul­cated a repu­ta­tion as a cent­rist, and polls have re­por­ted his ap­prov­al rat­ing north of 60 per­cent.

Ud­all isn’t as well-liked, but more voters than not have a fa­vor­able im­age of him as he be­gins his reelec­tion cam­paign. A sur­vey from the Demo­crat­ic firm Hick­man As­so­ci­ates In­ter­na­tion­al, con­duc­ted on be­half of the Con­sumer En­ergy Al­li­ance (a group that sup­ports build­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline), found that 47 per­cent of state res­id­ents saw him very or some­what un­fa­vor­ably; only 26 per­cent viewed him un­fa­vor­ably.

Those are the kind of num­bers Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives say they can use to make the con­tests a loc­al match­up of per­son­al­it­ies, not just in the troika of blue states but pos­sibly with Mark Pry­or in Arkan­sas and Mary Landrieu in Louisi­ana. Shaheen, for in­stance, can talk about fund­ing she de­livered for a loc­al fire­house while Re­pub­lic­ans talk breath­lessly about the pres­id­ent and Re­id.

It’s a strategy they ar­gue worked well in 2012, when Re­pub­lic­ans tried and failed to make an ar­ray of Sen­ate races a na­tion­al ref­er­en­dum.

“Re­pub­lic­ans’ only hope is to make these races about something else oth­er than the names on the bal­lot,” said Justin Barasky, spokes­man for the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “And it didn’t work for them last cycle.”

GOP op­er­at­ives in­volved in their races this year stress their can­did­ates know that cam­paign­ing against a pop­u­lar in­cum­bent like Warner is dif­fer­ent. It starts, they say, by un­der­stand­ing how they talk about him or her with voters has to be meas­ured, at least in the early go­ing.

“If some­body starts off with a per­son­al fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing that might be high, if you start go­ing and say­ing they shouldn’t like them, you’re prob­ably go­ing to run in­to a brick wall,” said Dan Al­len, a Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive based in Vir­gin­ia.

In­stead, Al­len urged Re­pub­lic­ans to keep their at­tacks fo­cused tightly on policy, es­pe­cially Obama­care. The cri­ti­cism isn’t ne­ces­sar­ily about per­suad­ing people then and there to vote against him, but rather part of a longer game to con­vince them that their long-held im­age of Warner as a cent­rist doesn’t match what he’s done in of­fice. At which point, voters will be more open-minded about oth­er ar­gu­ments against him.

It’s a play­book that Warner’s op­pon­ent, former chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Ed Gillespie, ap­pears to be fol­low­ing. A Web video re­leased by his cam­paign com­pares and con­trasts the two can­did­ates’ stance on Obama­care while the law was de­bated in 2009, sug­gest­ing that Warner “broke his word” to his con­stitu­ents by vot­ing for it.

“Go­ing after likab­il­ity as your first punch, or your first ad­vance — that’s go­ing to turn more people off than you’re go­ing to get,” Al­len said. “The smart cam­paigns are the ones that look at it and say, ‘I’m not go­ing to make it per­son­al. I don’t need to. Let me use some of these things out there already.’ “

Not every­one frets that GOP can­did­ates need to tip­toe by their op­pon­ents. Op­er­at­ives at the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee say their own in­tern­al polling on Shaheen, Warner, and Landrieu show at least a plur­al­ity of voters think a new per­son should take of­fice. In oth­er words: Voters are ready to throw the bums out.

Ed Beth­une, a former GOP House mem­ber from Arkan­sas who chal­lenged Mark Pyror’s fath­er, Dav­id, for his Sen­ate seat in 1984, says the eld­er Pry­or’s pop­ular­ity rendered his chal­lenge little more than a long shot — even dur­ing Ron­ald Re­agan’s land­slide reelec­tion win.

But that was 30 years ago, he adds, be­fore voters star­ted caring about party af­fil­i­ation and stopped caring about the per­son­al­it­ies be­hind them. Now voters know what they want in a politi­cian, and in Arkan­sas, it’s not a Demo­crat.

“I kid Dav­id Pry­or all the time, ‘Why don’t we re­run our race this year?’ ” Beth­une said.

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