Seven Ways to Make Voters Forget You’re a Democrat


Democrats knew this day would come, although perhaps not so soon: after winning a slew of seats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, they have a bevy of vulnerable incumbents facing constituents who don’t think much of the Democratic Party or its national leadership. To hold onto their seats, many of these Democrats—even as they often accept help from their party’s reelection committees—seek to distance themselves from the national party as they try to appeal to the voters back home. Some candidates take the tack of emphasizing their conservative—or “independent”—record while never mentioning their party. If you didn’t know the candidate, you’d sometimes think you were watching an ad for a Republican. Others tackle their party’s image problem head-on by reinforcing it, hoping that doing so will benefit them personally. They explicitly declare their independence from, and frequent opposition to, President Obama, Democratic congressional leaders, or the entire District of Columbia. While their issues or characters to associate with—or disassociate from—differ, they all make the same point: I’m one of you, not a “Washington liberal,” so don’t treat me like just another Democrat. Here are some typical tactics:

“Too often, it seems, those folks up in Washington are more interested in their personal agendas than in anything else,” says Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) “Well, that’s not who I am. I don’t work for [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi or [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid or anyone else. I work for you, and I’m always going to do what’s best for southeastern North Carolina.”

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) opens an ad decrying “too many folks in Washington [who] just vote the party line” and then features constituents praising his independence as exemplified, one of them says, by his vote against health-care reform.

Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) brags in a commercial that he voted against “Nancy Pelosi’s energy tax on Hoosier families.” Other Democrats from Appalachia, which produces coal, and the Midwest, which uses it to generate most of its electricity, have hit on the same theme.

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), whose district includes George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, goes after both of Obama’s top domestic issues, as well as Nancy Pelosi, in just one short TV commercial. “When President Obama and Nancy Pelosi pressured Chet Edwards,” says the narrator in dramatic fashion, “Chet stood up to them, and voted no against their trillion-dollar health-care bill and no to cap-and-trade.”

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (Democratic nominee for Senate) recently released a 30-second spot that shows him loading a rifle and shooting at a target that includes a sheet of paper labeled “cap and trade bill.” Manchin emphasizes his conservative policy credentials: pro-gun, concerned about “Obamacare,” and against federal environmental regulation (he says he will “take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill”). He also brags about receiving the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, as do other Democrats, such as Edwards, who have been so blessed.

Going hunting famously failed to bolster John Kerry’s credibility with working-class voters, but Manchin, a lifelong West Virginian and a veteran of state politics, comes across as more plausible. (And he wisely opted for a casual green-beige jacket instead of Kerry’s infamous bright orange vest.)

An ad for Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) brags about instances in which he cooperated with President Bush and other Republicans. When voting for Bush’s Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the narrator says over an image of Bush signing the law, Pomeroy was “putting seniors before party.”

Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.) cut an ad to the tune of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” touting his Sweet Home Alabama credentials and his political independence. On the screen is an image of him next to a smiling photo of House Republican leader John Boehner, along with a claim that the two vote together 80 percent of the time. Likewise, a commercial for Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) mentions that he votes with Boehner 63 percent of the time. So much for the Democrats’ hopes of making Boehner a political liability for the GOP. 

If one Democrat’s loss could be seen a mile away this year, it was that of Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Representing a state that has lagged its Southern neighbors—despite sharing their conservative views—in switching to the GOP in state races, but that favored John McCain by 20 points in 2008, Lincoln was always at the top of the Republicans’ hit list. As far back as May, when she was still engaged in a close primary fight with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, Lincoln’s first televised campaign commercial—aimed at the general election—checked every possible Democrat-distancing box: it attacked Washington’s partisan culture and profligate spending, health-care and energy reform, and some of Obama’s signature measures to save the economy. The ad cleverly portrays Washington as a room full of children attacking each other and throwing “your tax dollars” around. “This is why I voted against giving more money to Wall Street, against the auto-company bailout, against the public-option health-care plan, and against the cap-and-trade bill that would have raised energy costs on Arkansans … Some in my party didn’t like it very much,” says Lincoln. “I don’t answer to my party, I answer to Arkansas.” Consider it throwing a Hail Mary—that didn’t connect. Polls consistently show her far behind her Republican opponent, John Boozman.