How Democratic Senators Can Survive in a Bad Year

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 3 2014 12:12 PM

How Democratic Senators Can Survive in a Bad Year

Think local, talk about pork, and define your opponent early and often.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen speaks to the media on May 6, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

How do you survive as a Democratic senator in an election year that looks good for Republicans? Neutralize the national and focus on the local. Democrats have been getting a lot of practice at the former. On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules limiting emissions at power plants, drawing rebukes and skepticism from Democrats in Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia. “President Obama’s new EPA rule is more proof that Washington isn’t working for Kentucky,” Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes said. “When I’m in the U.S. Senate, I will fiercely oppose the president’s attack on Kentucky’s coal industry because protecting our jobs will be my No. 1 priority.”

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Last week, Democrats in tough races rushed to call for Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of the 11 Democratic senators who wanted Shinseki out, eight of them were up for re-election. (In the House, where re-election is every two years, 32 Democrats called for his ouster.) All of this came in a year where vulnerable candidates were working hard to minimize the damage from the president’s unpopular health care plan

Imagine being a short-order cook in an earthquake. Every time you try to flip a burger or try to plate a fried egg, the freezer door flies open or the gas line gets knocked out. That’s what it’s like to be a Democrat running for the Senate this year. When you’re trying to keep voters focused on the local race, a national issue intrudes. 

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National trends heading into the 2014 elections are as bad for Democrats as they were before the 2010 election, when Republicans won 63 House seats, six Senate seats, and seven governorships. People think the country is headed in the wrong direction and are not optimistic about the economy, and a majority disapprove of the job the president is doing. In order to combat this sour national picture, Democrats have been following a familiar playbook, trying to show how they can deliver for their voters on the issues that matter most to them while defining their Republican opponents as the people who will harm them on those very same issues. 

In Louisiana, three-term incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu has been touting that she is the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which puts her in a position to deliver for a state where oil and gas are key to the local economy. In one ad, a Republican shipbuilder says that he supports her because of her committee position. “It’s the most powerful position a person can have when it comes to Louisiana,” he says in a hard hat, a giant vessel behind him. “It means more votes, more jobs, and more oil and gas.” She's relied so heavily on her committee post in pictures and advertisements that she ran into trouble for re-enacting a Senate hearing. In addition to delivering pork, Landrieu is emphasizing her local roots, appearing in ads with her father, Moon Landrieu, the former congressman and mayor of New Orleans. 

In New Hampshire, first-term Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has been touting her local work, too. Her first television ad, run in early May before the VA firestorm, veteran Dwight Clark says that Shaheen “cut through the red tape” to help get a clinic open in the city of Keene. In another ad, she touts the work she has done for small business. In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich emerges from under a snowmobiling helmet to boast about the work he did securing road and bridge permits despite Washington obstacles

The message is that although no one may have faith in Washington, these lawmakers are getting results for their constituents. The problem with this strategy, though, is that when you portray yourself as a unique force able to tame Washington, that story is undermined when you can’t do anything to stop Obama from implementing new EPA rules. (Getting the review period extended doesn’t really count.)

Yes, it’s useful for a candidate to find issues where he can distinguish himself from a president, but sometimes the issues are just too big—trying to beat them back takes up oxygen a candidate should be using to sell his best message. Fighting your opponent to a draw on the Affordable Care Act may be a victory of sorts, but it wastes a lot of hours that could be spent talking about the minimum wage, which does more to motivate the voters you need. 

When Grimes promises to protect Kentucky coal, it’s a hard sell. Anyone who really wants the president’s policies stopped is going to assume Grimes’ opponent, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is going to have a better shot—particularly if he becomes majority leader—than a freshman Democratic senator. 

Candidates are also working to make their opponents seem objectionable. One model is Sen. Sherrod Brown’s 2012 victory in Ohio. Heavily bombarded with outside money attacking Brown for his support of Obamacare, the one-term senator attacked his opponent early and often, taking some of the focus off himself. 

In Arkansas, incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor has been hitting Republican Rep. Tom Cotton for voting to raise the age for Medicare eligibilityOutside groups, including the one run by former aides of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have been steadily blasting Cotton on the Medicare issue.

Democratic strategists say that’s why, despite Obama’s meager 34 percent approval rating in the state and a barrage of attack ads tying Pryor to Obamacare (including another one out Tuesday), Pryor is ahead in the polls. Pryor is popular—he has a 50 percent favorable rating and just a 35 percent unfavorable rating in the latest NBC-Marist poll—while Cotton has a 38 percent favorability rating. This is a version of what Sen. Mark Udall is trying to do to his opponent in Colorado and Democratic Senate candidate Gary Peters is trying to do in Michigan. To win in November, some Democrats are going to have to keep it nasty. 

Control of the Senate will have a national impact, but the contest isn’t a national election. It is a dozen or so statewide races in which local idiosyncrasies can swamp national trends even when those forces seem strongest. National trends can swing House races in battleground districts, but the last several election cycles have shown that Senate races have their own dynamics. The personalities and attributes of the candidates can matter more than anything else. Democrats just have to hope that they have enough time to capture voters’ attention and to serve up the local delicacies they’ve been cooking up between dashes to the fire extinguisher.