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Posted at 11:25 AM ET, 01/26/2011

The campaign history of "date night"

By Chris Cillizza

In the days leading up to last night's State of the Union address, cable television was abuzz about Members of Congress of opposing parties sitting together to show of unity in the wake of the attempted assassination of Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

The idea was widely credited to Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, and Colorado Sen. Mark Udall (D) who became its chief proponent on Capitol Hill.

But, the idea of cross party-seating -- not just for the State of the Union speech but always - -- has been around since the mid-1990s in the context of political campaign as Democrats running in Republican-leaning states have used it to paint themselves as independent problem-solvers.

The idea of cross-party seating first cropped up in ads in the 1996 Georgia Senate race between Max Cleland (D) and Guy Millner (R).

"No wonder Congress spends all of its time fighting," says Cleland in the commercial. "Republicans sit on one side, Democrats on the other."

Four years later, former Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson (D) used a near-identical message in ads in support of his bid for an open seat in the Cornhusker State.

Both Cleland and Nelson won their races despite the strong Republican tilt of the states in which they ran. (Both ads were produced by the Democratic media consulting firm Struble Eichenbaum.)

Given those successes, it's not hard to imagine 2012 candidates running in states less than friendly to their party drawing on the State of the Union seating arrangements as a way to paint themselves as common-sense reformers without strong party affiliations.

Of course, while Cleland and Nelson got some short-term gains from that messaging, its long term effectiveness is up for debate. Cleland lost his bid for a second term in 2002 while Nelson won reelection in 2006 but is in deep political peril in the 2012 cycle.

By Chris Cillizza  | January 26, 2011; 11:25 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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