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.

Screen cap (National Journal)

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.