The Democrats' Most Effective Midterm Message: Outsourcing

Taking a page from Obama's 2012 playbook, Democrats have found a winning message in a dismal political environment.

CHICAGO—Of all the negative campaign messages that Democrats have used this midterm election, the most effective one is a time-tested line of attack: hitting Republican businessmen for being exorbitantly wealthy while outsourcing jobs overseas and laying off employees. It was President Obama's central argument in his reelection campaign against Mitt Romney, and it is being put to devastating use again in a handful of close gubernatorial and congressional races this year.

More than any of the other well-worn Democratic arguments—Republicans want to restrict access to abortion, they're beholden to the agenda of the Koch brothers, and so on—this argument is successfully persuading undecided voters in close races.

In Illinois, businessman Bruce Rauner looked likely to unseat one of the most unpopular Democratic governors, Pat Quinn. But since a monthlong ad blitz portraying Rauner as the second coming of Romney, the Republican now narrowly trails in recent public polls. The spots, airing on Chicago television, have been merciless to the first-time candidate. One highlights his $140,000 membership in an exclusive wine club. Another potent hit alleges that Rauner demeaned a female executive for refusing to lay off workers (a charge Rauner dismissed as "baloney" in Tuesday night's debate).

"Rauner's companies laid off millions while he made millions," blared a headline in another ad, which accuses the Republican of shipping jobs to China and India, using accounting tricks to avoid taxes, and stashing funds in the Cayman Islands—all while the patriotic anthem "My Country 'Tis of Thee" plays in the background.

The concept of playing patriotic music while unleashing a fusillade of personal attacks was pioneered by Obama's media consultant Larry Grisolano, whose most memorable presidential ad featured Romney singing "America the Beautiful" while text attacking his wealth and business record flashed across the screen. Quinn is taking a page directly from that Obama playbook.

"Pat's been on very familiar turf running a populist campaign," said Grisolano, who worked on Quinn's 2010 race but isn't a part of the reelection effort. "In these industrial Midwestern states, it's got a little extra edge. I don't think you're disqualified if you come from that [business] background, but the burden of proof is going to be a bit higher to prove your heart and plans and intentions are in the right place."

All told, it's transformed the image of Rauner, an accomplished venture capitalist and admired philanthropist, into a corporate villain. A Chicago Sun-Times poll released this week showed Quinn narrowly leading Rauner by 3 points, with the governor pulling ahead on the question of who most understands voters' everyday concerns.

"Pat Quinn running a populist campaign against a billionaire is like asking a dog to lick its balls. That's just nature taking over," said Democratic strategist Tom Bowen, a former political director for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "Because voters expect something different from their governors, these issues are particularly potent."

The same types of populist attacks against GOP businessman haven't been limited to Obama's home state. They've been used by Democrats to make surprising inroads in the Georgia Senate race, to undermine top GOP gubernatorial candidates in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and to pummel a leading congressional challenger who was once best known for his resemblance to Brad Pitt. Republicans have gotten traction in these races by criticizing Democrats' fiscal stewardship or support for raising taxes, so Democrats are firing back with withering attacks on their business backgrounds.

In Georgia, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced Tuesday it was spending an additional $1 million in the GOP-leaning state, amid signs that Democrat Michelle Nunn was gaining ground against Republican David Perdue. Nunn's latest ads have focused on Perdue's history of outsourcing as a CEO of Dollar General, with one citing a report from a 2005 deposition where he said he "spent most of [his] career" engaging in the practice. The ad's tagline: "David Perdue, he's not for you." An automated SurveyUSA poll released Wednesday showed Nunn leading for the first time in months, up 3 points on Perdue. One Democratic operative told National Journal that their internal tracking showed Nunn pulling ahead of Perdue, a reversal from earlier polling showing her trailing.

"Businessmen look at their economic contributions as net positives. They find it hard to put themselves in the economic frame of a 50-year-old guy who used to be an electrical engineer but is now doing software support because his line of work was shifted overseas," said veteran Republican media strategist Rick Wilson. "It's a throwback to the economic insecurity argument. Economic disruptions have led to immense anxiety by ordinary folks. A lot of Republicans have been slow off the mark to that challenge."

In Connecticut, Gov. Dan Malloy, locked in a tight rematch against Greenwich businessman Tom Foley, has blanketed the state's airwaves with ads contrasting his middle-class lifestyle with his challenger's conspicuous wealth. (A New York Times profile of the race noted that Foley owns a yacht, a mansion—and a fighter jet.) Malloy successfully ran against Foley's business record in 2010, and has aired ads again accusing Foley's former investment firm for selling companies that later went out of business. His media consultant is AKPD Media, which produced similar-themed ads for Obama to use against Romney.

And in a surprisingly close Massachusetts gubernatorial race, Democrats are using Romney's return visit to the state this week on behalf of Republican Charlie Baker to rehash allegations that he outsourced jobs to Texas at his health insurance firm. Baker's impressive turnaround of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care has been his biggest selling point in the race—one Democrats are scrambling to undermine.

Democrats are utilizing the same critiques against wealthy challengers in congressional campaigns. One of the most effective Democratic hits occurred in a rural Minnesota district, represented by Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan. The GOP challenger, Stewart Mills, is one of the GOP's top recruits, in part because of his apolitical appearance and his longtime work at his family's sporting-goods business. But a sustained Democratic ad campaign highlighting his half-million-dollar salary at the company—and poking fun at him primping his long hair—has given Democrats a small edge in the race, despite the punishing national environment for the party. The outside Democratic ads call him "millionaire Stewart Mills III."

"They played into the stereotype: The hair and the beautiful lifestyle," Wilson said. "And that's a district where you have a lot of blue- and gray-collar voters that aren't that enthused about shiny young capitalists."