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Ad Wars: Playing Transactional Politics

With the unemployment rate soaring, gas above $4 a gallon, an unpopular war in Iraq and President Bush's approval numbers mired in the 30s, it's hard out there for Republican candidates.

Given the challenges, how can a GOP incumbent hope to win reelection in the fall?

A series of ads launched by two potentially vulnerable Republican senators -- Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) and Mitch McConnell (Ky.) -- provide us with some clues about how GOP incumbents are seeking to sail into a fierce political headwind. The ads are this week's installment of Ad Wars.

Let's take a look at the ads first.

Here's the Dole ad:

Here's McConnell's first ad, which began running late last year:

And here's a more recent McConnell offering:

All three ads tout the incumbent's sway in Washington and ability to deliver for their state.

Dole's ad notes that she brought back $4 billion for agriculture programs and kept "every major North Carolina military base" from closing during the latest round of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) report.

"Now that's clout ... that's Elizabeth Dole," say two of the North Carolinians featured in the commercial.

McConnell's ads strike a similar tone -- seeking to turn his role as Senate minority leader into a positive.

"Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has a vision for a new Kentucky," says the narrator, before noting that the Kentucky Republican has delivered $280 million for the state's university system, $70 million to "fight crime" and $1 billion for parks and conservation.

"The leader who can do more for Kentucky's future," the narrator says at the end of the commercial.

What's NOT in the ads is just as important as what is. In none of the three commercials is President Bush's name mentioned, nor do the party affiliations of Dole and McConnell make an appearance. Remember, these incumbents represent states where Bush won with 60 percent (Kentucky) and 56 percent (North Carolina) of the vote in 2004. That's a testament to just how badly tarnished the Republican brand is across the country.

McConnell and Dole have apparently reached the conclusion that the only message that can win for a Republican in an environment like this is a purely transactional one: Reelect me and I'll continue to bring back lots and lots of money for this state.

While pork-barrel spending is decried by many politicians in Washington -- including, loudly, by GOP presumptive nominee John McCain -- the reason it continues year after year after year is because many voters like to see their politicians providing "deliverables" back to the state.

In places like Kentucky and North Carolina, the message of delivering federal dollars is even more effective given the slowdowns in the two states' economies. Money coming back to the state means jobs and, in an economic downturn like this one, every voter -- no matter how much they may dislike the president or stand in opposition to the war in Iraq -- can get behind someone who is helping them keep their job.

For Republican incumbents like Dole and McConnell -- not to mention senators in tougher reelection fights Norm Coleman (Minn.), Susan Collins (Maine), John Sununu (N.H.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.) -- the transactional approach may well be their best path to reelection.

Watch to see if other Republican lawmakers -- in the House and Senate -- follow the lead of Dole and McConnell in their advertising over the coming months. The Fix's bet? They will.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 11, 2008; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Ad Wars  
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