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"Choice" vs "Referendum": A (few) Democratic success stories

By Aaron Blake

Vice President Joe Biden recently remarked at a rally in Pennsylvania that Democrats will "lose, and we'll deserve to lose, if we make it a referendum. ... We have to do everything we can to make this a choice, an honest choice."

Biden, as usual, has a knack for saying publicly what others will only say privately. For months, Democratic leaders and strategists have been emphasizing that the November election must be about a choice between Republican candidates and Democratic candidates. If it's a referendum, they say, the party will be bludgeoned since neither President Barack Obama nor the Democratic-led Congress are particularly popular.

So now that we're a few weeks from Election Day, is the strategy working? Where? Why?

Below, we examine 10 races where Democrats have made some headway in defining GOP candidates, making the race a choice and giving their party hope. Democrats are still likely to lose at least a few of these races, but it's worth looking at how they've gone about creating that "choice."

(Note: We're not talking about candidates like Christine O'Donnell here, because she was likely to lose before her run of bad press since becoming the Republican nominee. We're focusing on where the attacks have landed and could actually change the course of the race.)

Florida governor

Florida has emerged as one of three big prizes for the Democratic Governors Association, and it was likely made easier when Rick Scott, the baggage-laden former health care executive defeated state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary. Much of the damage was done in that primary but the DGA and Democrat Alex Sink's campaign have kept the spotlight on Scott.

An ad that began running earlier this month encapsulates Scott's problems. Scott is still in the race and his millions in personal wealth make him impossible to write off. But Democrats have been able to cut through that advantage with some powerful messaging.

Illinois Senate

Republicans are unhappy that this race has turned into such a nail-biter. Yes, it's a blue state, but Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias's vulnerabilities have been matched so far by Rep. Mark Kirk's own foibles.

Kirk has been forced to apologize for a series of misstatements about his military record, and Democrats have gone after some Kirk claims that they contend have been inflated. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet recently suggested the race is now seen as being between "a mob banker and a serial embellisher." Giannoulias' liabilities aside, that's a choice, and that's about the best Democrats could hope for in this race.

Pennsylvania's 10th district

Rep. Chris Carney's (D-Pa.) seat should be a sure-fire pickup in this political environment as it has strong GOP underpinnings. Unfortunately for Republicans, former U.S. Attorney Tom Marino (R) has weathered a series of hits which, in addition to some shoddy fundraising, are jeopardizing his chances.

Marino has been suffering under his claim, which he later walked back, that he had Justice Department clearance to help a convicted felon obtain a casino license.

Marino led by a wide margin in an early August survey sponsored by GOP-leaning American Action Forum, when his favorable number was 25 and his unfavorable number was nine. Now the race is like a toss-up, with an independent Lycoming College poll last week showing Carney up three points. Carney's campaign is out with a poll today showing him up seven -- and those gains are directly attributable to Marino's inability to keep voters' eyes focused on the incumbent.

Ohio's 13th district

Democrats appear to have really turned things around in this Cleveland-area seat following allegations that car dealer Tom Ganley (R) sexually harassed an aspiring campaign worker. Ganley has denied the allegations, but they appear to have cost him politically.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee early this week pulled its remaining ads in the district, citing Ganley's problems and his decision to severely curtail his ad buys over the final weeks of the campaign. Ganley insists he's not packing it in but it looks like the voters of the district are doing it for him.

Kentucky Senate

Conservative-leaning Kentucky has now passed four more attractive swing-state open seats -- Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio -- to become Senate Democrats' top target this year. (The Fix now rates it as the only toss-up among the five.) And though Democrat Jack Conway has run a capable campaign, most of the reason is attributable to the candidacy of ophthalmologist Rand Paul.

Paul's libertarian-leaning politics led him to initially dismiss federal funding to fight the state's drug epidemic, and he's also endured a series of hits on his past, including a college stunt that reportedly involved a mock kidnapping and, more recently, being a member of an anti-Christian group in college.

Given the political environment nationally, this race should have been far easier for Republicans.

Nevada Senate

Relatively speaking, Democrats have even more to work with on former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle than they do with Paul. Hits on social security privatization, her contention that unemployed people are milking the unemployment system, and her statement that it's not Congress' job to create jobs have all been effectively exploited by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to cast her as outside-the-mainstream.

What we have now is a situation where Angle is as unpopular as Reid. It's hard not to think that Republicans would have had an easier time if they had nominated another candidate, Angle's $14 million third quarter notwithstanding.

Nevada's 3rd district

About $1 million was spent against state Sen. Joe Heck before he had a chance to fight back, but damage was done. Democrats and liberal groups have successfully attacked Heck on social security privatization and a vote in the state Senate against a bill that would have required insurance companies to cover a vaccine for cervical cancer.

Mason-Dixon, which has polled the race frequently for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, showed Titus turning a five-point deficit earlier this year into a four-point lead last month. Over that span, Heck's favorable rating has barely ticked upward, but his unfavorable number has doubled.

The good news for Heck is that he's still very much in the game. A Penn Schoen Berland poll for The Hill newspaper this week showed him at 47 percent and Titus at 44.

Iowa's 3rd district

GOP leaders wanted former Iowa State wrestling coach Jim Gibbons as their nominee against Rep. Leonard Boswell (D). Instead they got state Sen. Brad Zaun -- and he has given Democrats plenty of material with which to work.

First came a Des Moines Register story in August that detailed how Zaun was told to stay away from his former girlfriend in 2001. Then came revelations about Zaun's personal financial situation, including unpaid taxes as well as foreclosure proceedings. Finally, Democrats have been using a clip of Zaun saying he would do "nothing" for the biofuels industry, a statement that won't play well in corn-rich Iowa.

A GOP poll in August showed Zaun up 10, but polls this week from Boswell's campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee show the incumbent leading by 9 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Boswell's poll also shows Zaun's favorability is already upside down, at 34 percent favorable and 38 percent unfavorable.

Arizona's 8th district

Iraq war veteran Jesse Kelly, like Zaun, knocked off an establishment favorite in the primary. Since then, he's been significantly outspent and has taken a beating from Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) on issues ranging from social security privatization to the Fair Tax to the idea of eliminating the Department of Education.

Kelly's first ad features the candidate defending himself on the social security charge -- never a good sign.

This race polled as a toss-up in August but as the state's other top congressional races have taken off (in the 1st and 5th districts) neither party has put money into this race.

Florida's 22nd district

Former Army Lt. Col. Allen West was hailed as one of the GOP's rising star candidates but personal financial problems including past-due credit card bills and liens have hurt. West has also been hit for what Democrats say are "extreme" positions on social security and Medicare -- a popular Democratic attack.

West's opponent -- Florida Democratic Rep. Ron Klein is no amateur campaigner, and he set about defining West early in the campaign. This contest could still be close, but it's no longer considered one of the GOP's best opportunities.

These ten races are the exception not the rule in an election cycle where national winds are blowing strongly in Democrats' collective face. But, they do suggest that at least in a handful of races Nov. 2 will be a choice not a referendum -- and that's good news for the majority party.

By Aaron Blake  | October 14, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Governors, House, Senate  
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