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Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and the empathy strategy

Television ads are a window into the soul of a campaign.

Because ads are typically the largest expenditure in any race, the images and message(s) that a candidate puts into any given campaign commercial provides a telling glance into the strategic approach he or she is taking to the contest.

It's why we at the Fix pay such close attention to ads -- the good, the bad and the downright weird. (Thank you Dale Peterson!)

And, it's why a new ad from Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D), who finds herself in a tough race against state Rep. Kristi Noem this fall, caught our eye.

In it, Sandlin seeks -- as so many targeted Democrats are doing this cycle -- to distance herself from the goings-on in Washington (and even her own party).

"In Washington, they call this flyover country," says Sandlin as a view from a passing plane is shown. "They look down from 30,000 feet and don't care about our agriculture, the Second Amendment or our fiscally conservative values."

Sandlin add that she took on "liberal leaders" to protect South Dakotans' gun rights and "fought people in both parties who want to just throw money away."

The message is crystal clear: I am not one of them, I am one of you. (The "them" of course can be equally applied to her own party as Republicans.) Put another way, Sandlin is making an empathy argument: You know me and I know you so whatever you think of Washington, that's not me.

Every image (and word) in the ad is aimed at playing up that idea -- from the fact that it is shot in South Dakota to the fact she is referred to as simply "Stephanie". Just in case you missed that message, Sandlin closes the ad with this line: "No matter which party's in charge, I do what's right for South Dakota."

For someone like Sandlin who is one of 48 Democrats who represent districts carried by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, it may be the best (only?) argument to make in an electoral environment as difficult as this one.

While the strategy is right, whether it will work remains to be seen. Strategists on both sides call the race a toss up and it will be a worthy test of whether 2010, which is shaping up to be a national election, can be weathered by Democrats running intensely local races.

By Chris Cillizza  | August 26, 2010; 1:47 PM ET
Categories:  Ad Wars  
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