Across the country, something is missing from the campaign ads of men and women running for Congress: the word “Congress.”
Likewise, “Senate,” “senator” and “representative” are making only rare cameos in these campaign ads. The absence is especially pronounced in the case of incumbents who are asking voters to re-elect them in November.
“How do you go from working in a family seed business in Iowa to fighting for Iowans at the highest levels?” a narrator intones in an ad for Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa.
The highest levels of what, exactly? The ad notes that Latham took “Iowa common sense” to Washington and voted against the stimulus package — but never exactly spells out that he has served at the highest levels of the U.S. government — in Congress — since 1995.
There are years when incumbents can tout their experience and legislative achievements as they seek re-election. This is not one those years, as the approval ratings of the gridlocked Congress have begun to approach the popularity of pond scum among an increasingly disenchanted electorate.
The result is that consultants and strategists who run congressional campaigns appear to be employing some artful ad copy to avoid mentioning that their candidates are members of Congress. “They don’t use their title. They don’t refer to their years of service. They don’t show pictures of themselves in committee meetings,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan congressional analyst, explaining the incumbent-as-outsider strategy. “They have to acknowledge the anger, the frustration. They’ve got to run as agents of change,” he said.
Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., who is running for the Senate, appeared in a campaign ad earlier this year with his mother, Francie.
“I want to tell you about my son, Rick Berg,” she said, seated at a kitchen table next to him. She said that he had grown up on a farm, working cattle, bailing hay and learning the value of a dollar. She vouched for his knowledge of “the North Dakota way.”
She declined to mention that he also knows at least something about the Washington way, having served as North Dakota’s only member of Congress since 2011.
Campaign officials generally deny that their candidates are ducking the congressional label, and it is hard to deny or obscure membership in that body. But after more than a year of bitter disputes on Capitol Hill — a handful of near-government shutdowns, a showdown over raising the nation’s legal borrowing limit last summer, the utter failure of a special deficit reduction “supercommittee” — it’s clear that this year, even the incumbents are running as outsiders who will shake the place up. Although this is not an entirely new strategy, more incumbents may be forced to embrace it, given the political climate.
Congressional approval ratings, once as low as 10 percent, have lifted to a comparatively rosy 17 percent. But they have not been above 20 percent all year, making Congress by far the least popular branch of government.
“When Congress has at best a 20 percent approval rating, it’s pretty hard to run as an incumbent,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist and ad maker. “The best and only thing candidates can do is to vigorously point out every reason why you are not like the rest of your colleagues.”
In Massachusetts, Boston television correspondent Gail Huff does not mention that her husband, Scott Brown, has served in the Senate for 2 1/2years in a pair of ads now running in Massachusetts praising Brown, R, as a supportive husband and attentive father.
“Scott did all the morning routine — get the girls up, get them fed, get them dressed, get them off to school,” she says, as an image of Brown doing the laundry flashes on the screen.
Incumbents know that they can run only so far from their congressional affiliations. In addition to his wife’s testimonials, Brown is airing a separate ad that mentions Senate votes he has taken, but he has focused his campaign on separating himself from the partisan gridlock in Washington, by talking about what he is doing to end it.
Even when they talk about Washington, it is often to disdain the Congress in which they serve: “If you’re looking for Martin Heinrich on weekends, you won’t find him here,” opens an ad for the Democratic Senate candidate from New Mexico, as a picture of the U.S. Capitol flashes on the screen. “You’ll find Martin in New Mexico.”
But why would viewers even think to look for Heinrich in Washington? The ad assumes they already know that his weekday job has been as a congressman since 2009. The ad ends with the lawmaker declaring: “Our problems won’t be solved by the powers that be in Washington, but by the hard-working people of New Mexico.”
Playing down a congressional history is a particularly vexing problem for House members, such as Heinrich, who are hoping for a promotion to the Senate, and troublesome for tea party freshmen who helped Republicans win the House in 2010 and now find themselves forced to run as influential members of the body they once railed against.
In Michigan, a new billboard from the National Republican Congressional Committee for Rep. Dan Benishek, a physician, shows the freshman in hospital whites and encourages voters to “Trust a doctor to fix Washington,” according to the Detroit Free Press.
“Meet Bobby,” reads one tab on the campaign website for Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., who had never held elected office before he won his House seat in two years ago.
Underneath is a 300-word biography of Schilling that includes information about his high school and college years, his 10 children and the pizza parlor he owns in Moline, Ill. It does not mention that he is already a congressman.
An oversight, Schilling said in a recent interview, arguing that his constituents may think Washington is broken but are pleased with his work on their behalf.
“I’ll have that addressed,” he said. “I’m proud to tell people I’m a member of Congress. It’s humbling to tell people that I go to Washington to work for them.”
ReelectBobby.com does mention elsewhere that Schilling serves in Congress. But a week later, his biography remained unchanged.
A spokesman for Latham also said ad makers did not purposely leave out the congressman’s job title in the campaign ad. Because of redistricting, Latham is facing fellow Rep. Leonard Boswell, D, which could neutralize incumbent kryptonite for either man.
“I don’t think we’re under any illusion that people aren’t aware or won’t be aware that this is a race between two sitting members of Congress,” said Latham campaign manager James Carstensen, noting that Latham’s campaign has sent mailers bragging that a local newspaper named him Iowa’s most effective congressman.
Still, Carstensen said, the anger in the country is very real — less targeted toward incumbents specifically and more at Washington for not tackling the nation’s biggest problems.
“You’ve got to share your frustration as an American and an Iowan with the institution you’re serving in,” he explained.
In North Dakota, a spokesman for Berg said he has no qualms about discussing his service in Congress in his campaign against former North Dakota attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, as the two compete to replace Sen. Kent Conrad, D, who is retiring.
North Dakotans are concerned primarily by Democrats in the Senate, said spokesman Chris Van Guilder, who they believe have not cut spending and blocked reasonable bills passed by House Republicans.
“People know he’s a congressman — a hard-working one at that,” Van Guilder said.
But campaign consultants might do well to examine one recent New Jersey race. Because of redistricting, the Democratic primary earlier this month pitted two congressmen — both first elected in 1996 — against each other.
One, Rep. Bill Pascrell, billed himself as a “100 percent New Jersey fighter.”
The other, Rep. Steven Rothman, advertised that he was “our congressman.”
Guess who won.