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POLITICS: PennAve

Why most vulnerable Democrats don't swing for the fences in ads

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Politics,Senate,Democratic Party,2014 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,Rebecca Berg,Kay Hagan,Mary Landrieu,Al Franken,Mark Begich

Scene: Three figures speed across the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean on snowmobiles, braving punishing sub-zero temperatures. The snowmobiles skid to a stop in close range to the camera, and our hero removes his helmet.

“I fought for five years to get the permits so we could drill under this ice,” says Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, looking into the camera and gesturing to the ice beneath his snowmobile. “And we won.”

The TV spot, created by the veteran Democratic adman Mark Putnam and released last month, is consistent with others for Begich's re-election campaign this year: sweeping and cinematic, highlighting his accomplishments on a grand scale. But for other endangered Democrats, that style might be the exception so far in this election cycle, not the rule.

On opposite ends of the dating spectrum, there are suitors who would woo with a steak dinner on a yacht, or those who would whip up pasta at home. In politics, likewise, some candidates appeal to voters with monumental gestures, while others opt for a lighter touch.

While Begich has favored the former, sexier strategy, the latter approach has been characteristic of positive ads by incumbents such as Sen. Kay Hagan -- who last month released a television spot touting her work to close a loophole that could have threatened jobs at a yarn manufacturer.

“Kay is a woman fighting like crazy for our jobs,” one woman says in the ad of Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat.


Sen. Kay Hagan's ad titled "Fabric."

The narrow focus was wholly intentional, a bid to connect Hagan with her state’s voters on a personal, local level — with the added benefit of creating as much space between Hagan and Congress, loathed by Americans as it is, as possible.

“These ads are effective in showing that despite the gridlock plaguing Washington, Kay has built a record of getting results for North Carolina families by working across the aisle,” said Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for Hagan.

Not only Hagan has been looking to hit base hits over home runs.

In an ad for Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., a Republican Minnesotan praised Franken for cracking down on tainted medications after a meningitis outbreak.

“When I first met [Franken], I realized he really does care for the people,” the Republican, Holly Peterson, said.


Sen. Al Franken's ad titled "Holly."

And a string of ads for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., have highlighted the strength of her constituent services, including for one constituent whose house was set to foreclose.

“I wouldn’t be in this house if it wasn’t for Jeanne Shaheen,” says the woman in the ad.

The ads aren’t breathtaking or exciting — but their bite-sized construction makes them believable and tangible, both vital ingredients to a successful political argument. If voters might not believe that a senator took on the president, Democrats and all of Washington to fight for a bill, they might give credit for more incremental achievements.

Conversely, overpromising or making too grand a statement can carry risks; just ask Sen. Mary Landrieu.

In one of her campaign’s most talked-about ads, Landrieu’s campaign wanted to emphasize her clout in Washington and its advantages for Louisiana industries.

“As chairman of the energy committee, she holds the most powerful position in the Senate for Louisiana,” a narrator says of Landrieu in the ad.


Sen. Mary Landrieu's ad titled "Will Not Rest."

But the television spot was picked apart because Landrieu, adhering to rules that prohibit the use of congressional video for campaign purposes, reenacted her role in a committee hearing for a few scenes. Republicans panned the ad as misleading.

Still, the ad was a better fit for Landrieu than Hagan, for example, because Landrieu — a longtime Louisiana politician and the daughter of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu — has a well-known political brand at home, unlike Hagan, a first-term senator.

“Senators with more established brands can make different arguments than senators who don’t,” as one Democratic strategist put it.

Which is why, while Begich dramatically rides a snowmobile in his ads, few other vulnerable Democratic incumbents are taking such a flashy approach, or will.

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Author:

Rebecca Berg

Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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