Two Democrats in competitive Senate races bucked the Republican tide. One is an incumbent, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and one a U.S. House Representative pursuing an open seat of a retiring Democrat, Gary Peters of Michigan.
What did they do that the other campaigns didn’t? And how should that inform progressive strategy going forward?
Comparing the races in New Hampshire and Michigan to the ones in Colorado and Iowa are particularly illuminating. While most of the 2014 Senate battles took place on turf conquered by Mitt Romney in 2012, Michigan gave Obama 54% and New Hampshire 52%. Similarly, Obama won Iowa with 52%. And Colorado Obama won with 51.5%. Like Michigan, Iowa was an open states. Like New Hampshire, Colorado Democrats tried to defend an incumbent, Sen. Mark Udall.
So how did these campaigns differ? Between the two incumbent campaigns, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen put far greater emphasis on concrete job-creating projects she delivered for New Hampshire. And she made a more pointed populist contrast between her priorities and her opponent, Scott Brown.
Case in point is this ad “Making a Difference” which features first-person testimonials thanking Shaheen for various projects around the state, while also slipping a nod to bipartisanship, to counter the attacks that she is a rubber stamp for Obama:
That ad kicked off the fall campaign, though it followed three similar spots from the spring, and two subsequent fall ads also drove the message.
And here’s how she dinged Scott Brown as a tool of Big Oil and Wall Street, but also embraced bipartisanship and local small business, in the ad “For You.”
Udall’s campaign embraced some of the same Democratic positions, in particular lower student loan rates. He also stood alone among vulnerable Senate Democrats in using the National Security Agency issue to show independence from Obama.
But he never called attention to specific projects that he delivered for Colorado. And his contrasts with Gardner focused heavily on reproductive freedom issues, which fizzled when Gardner abandoned his past position on “personhood” and insisted he supported easy access to birth control.
Incumbent red-state Democrats sought to tout their records. Alaska’s Begich ran a couple of ads that trumpeted home-state projects, but his bigger message came in several ads bragging about how he pressured the federal government to drill for Arctic oil. Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu placed first — but with only 42% likely dooming her in the December run-off — also after relentlessly selling her support for the local oil industry. But both suffer from the problem that their Republican opponents could also be counted on to support oil too, so the stance, while in all likelihood necessary to win in their respective states, did not provide a point of contrast that gave voters a reason to choose them over their opponents.
Other incumbents Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan did a weaker job citing tangible home-state accomplishments. Hagan ran summer ads that mentioned closing a garment industry trade loophole with China, and addressed water contamination issues at a state military base, but didn’t drive such messages in the fall. Pryor didn’t run any ads about successful local projects, though he did have one late ad that touted a law he backed to protect kids from unsafe imported toys, but otherwise closed his race with several ads stressing bipartisanship.
One other incumbent ad worth watching is Mitch McConnell’s. We know him as the chief obstructionist. But here’s how he ran in Kentucky:
McConnell got that law passed two months ago! He slipped that through precisely so he could run this ad, and knock down two of Alison Grimes’ attacks: that he’s blocking all legislation and voted against the Violence Against Women Act. He knew he had to show he delivered on something if he was going to survive.
Our open-seat blue staters could not as easily point to home-state projects to prove their effectiveness, so they chose different tacks.
Michigan’s Peters, in respect to his self-referential ads, may have run the least populist campaign of all the Democrats. While his biographical ad repeatedly stressed his middle-class background, they rarely took firm stances on issues. And a more dominant theme in his ads was frugality. Such as in this ad, “Frugal”:
Peters largely kept his distance from negative attacks, never even doing a contrast ad. It was outside groups that hammered Land’s ties to the Koch brothers in multiple ads, often using their support to link Land to the Koch’s controversial storing of petroleum coke on the banks of the Detroit River. Other Democratic campaigns tried using the Koch brothers to tar Republican rivals, and sought to make local ties. But the pet coke controversy had raged before the campaign and was something voters appeared to still have strong feelings about. Also of note, unlike Colorado, Land was successfully attacked for her anti-reproductive freedom stances and the gender gap worked in Peters’ favor.
Bruce Braley in Iowa ran a relatively more populist campaign, but it was campaign severely compromised by the candidate’s own stumbles, most notoriously disparaging Sen. Chuck Grassley for being a farmer. He was the only Democratic Senate candidate in a competitive race to run an ad embracing higher Social Security benefits, but it was only one ad late in the campaign and not a sustained push throughout. Republican Joni Ernst also moved to blunt Social Security from becoming an albatross for herself, both by running an ad assuring she would protect benefits “for seniors” and hitting Braley for his own earlier comments opening the door to Social Security cuts via means testing and a higher retirement age.
So the Shaheen victory tells us, it’s important for incumbents to show how they delivered at home, with concrete accomplishments, not broader legislative reforms, like Obamacare which does not produce an instantaneous clear-cut payoff at the local level.
The Peters victory and the Ernst victory in Iowa (remember “castrating hogs”) tell us that voters do respond to an anti-spending message. This presents a major challenge to progressives who wanted to see Democrats push a more robust job-creation package to address the weak economy. Few did because they feared being attacked as big spenders. No Democrat ran on anything like President Obama’s American Jobs Act.
It’s also worth looking at how some Republicans scored big victories. The biggest upset of 2014 was Larry Hogan’s bid for Maryland governor. Here is one spot he ran to attract Democratic support:
The key was defusing social issues then pivoting to pocketbook issues. Anger at tax hikes was a major theme of Hogan’s. But he need female testimonials, and in other ads, African-American testimonials, to get a hearing. A similar dynamic was found in Massachusetts. Charlie Baker ran ads stressing he was pro-choice and supported gay rights, while pushing tax cuts and hammering a gas tax increase that was tied to inflation. Not only did Baker win Tuesday, but the gas tax hike also was repealed by voters.
But before you conclude that this analysis means Democrats have to run away from tax increases and spending projects, watch this ad from California Gov. Democrat Jerry Brown, who was just re-elected by 18 points.
The interesting thing about that ad: it does not mention that he is running for governor.
In fact, Brown – who has raised taxes significantly, netted a surplus which he re-invested in schools and aid to the poor, and is all-in on funding a statewide high-speed rail system — did not run a single ad that mentioned his own campaign.
He aired three ads pushing Propositions 1 & 2 – both of which won in landslides – and he sat on his $20 million war chest, so he can use it to push future propositions and avoid being treated as a lame duck in his final term.
When the proof you have delivered is that evident, even if you raised taxes, even if support government spending, you don’t have to run an ad at all.