Washington changed Mark Udall, the ads say. And Jeff Merkley, and Jeanne Shaheen. In Virginia, Mark Warner has "lost his way," his opponent says. As did Mark Pryor—literally, in the latest depiction from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose ad represented the two-term Arkansas Democrat with a heavy-breathing man wandering through a dark forest.
As GOP challengers start to make their closing arguments against long-serving incumbents, many of them using the same "bring him home" theme. It's exactly what Republicans did against longtime Democratic House members just before the 2010 election. Rather than trying to convince voters their senator is the enemy, they're attacking with a softer approach, suggesting the incumbents simply succumbed to the party politics of Washington—and giving voters who once supported them reason to feel OK about changing their minds in 2014.
"Twelve years ago Mark Pryor promised to put Arkansas first, but over time, [he] lost his way," the narrator says in the recent ad from the NRSC. "It's time for him to come home."
It's a direct parallel to a 2010 ad House Republicans ran against then-Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, who lost to Republican Vicky Hartzler that fall.
"We've always respected Ike Skelton," a narrator said in the National Republican Congressional Committee ad. "But after three decades in Washington, this time the challenges may be too big. Lately he's supported Nancy Pelosi.... It's time for Ike Skelton to come home."
At the time, the independent expenditure director and lead consultant for the NRCC, Mike Shields and Brad Todd, credited much of their success in flipping the lower chamber to figuring out how to attack popular Democratic incumbents in not only a cost-efficient way but also a respectful way. Rather than litigating small policy issues, they spotlighted candidates' votes with party leadership, making the attacks less personal. Now faced with a similar challenge in the battle for the Senate, Todd says the same strategy has merit when attacking incumbent Democrats whose personal popularity has helped shield them from the changing politics in their states.
"The smartest mind-set is to get in the mind-set of those voters, understand where they're coming from," Todd said of the ads. "Some people fall into a trap of thinking they have to convince voters that everything their opponent has done is bad, but you don't have to win the last election, you only have to win this election. Especially with an opponent who has won multiple elections, you don't try to make the voter think he made a mistake by voting for him the last time, because they probably don't think they did."
Todd says giving the opponent credit for good character not only helps the opposition level with the audience, but also makes them more receptive to hearing the most important criticisms.
"We would never have beaten Ike Skelton if we hadn't accepted as fact and in our ads the good things he had done for the district," said Todd. "If you'd gone in and pretended Ike Skelton never did anything for Western Missouri, you would have gotten smoked, because it's not true, and voters know it's not true, and they need to know you don't think it's true, because otherwise they won't trust you on everything else."
Fast forward to 2014: Rep. Cory Gardner in Colorado is recycling this logic by suggesting his opponent, Mark Udall, is a good senator who simply lacks the power to create change.
"I'm going to tell you something you've never heard in a political commercial," Gardner said in a recent spot. "My opponent Mark Udall is a real nice guy. He's a real nice guy who will never change the Senate. He is the Senate."
To be clear, not every ad is as generous as Gardner's, but many of Republicans' October ads so far have harkened back to a theme that incumbent Democrats were elected with good intentions. Voters put them in office to change Washington, the argument goes, but Washington changed them instead. In New Hampshire and Oregon, GOP ads feature clips of the then-candidates promising to be independent leaders if elected before rolling forward into statistics about how often the two Democrats vote with President Obama.
Todd says that one month out from the election, each side is fighting over a small number of undecided voters who are less partisan than the general population. From Republicans' point of view, their best shot at this group is to capitalize on anti-Washington sentiment. And that means making sure not to seem like they're blaming voters for the current state of affairs.