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Senate Democrats go negative early (and often)

By Aaron Blake

Amid growing concern over retaining their Senate majority, Democrats are skipping the pretense of running positive ads and, in many cases, taking the unusual step of going negative with their first campaign commercials.

The approach reflects a stark reality of this election cycle: going negative is the only way to turn the election from a referendum on Democratic control of Washington to a choice between two candidates. So, go negative -- early, often and hard.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is heeding that advice in a new ad -- his first of his general election race against Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck -- launched yesterday.

The ad features Buck -- in his own words -- questioning the constitutionality of Social Security, the Department of Education and federal student loans. Buck also says he does not support exceptions for abortions in the cases of rape or incest.

The ad is very hard-hitting and 100 percent about Buck, save the obligatory Bennet disclaimer at the start of the ad. It's also exactly what Democratic leaders are looking for.

The general rule is that a candidate uses a first ad -- or even the first few ads -- to introduce (or re-introduce) himself or herself to the electorate with a spot focused on accomplishments and personal appeal.

But that traditional strategy has gone out the window as the party has instituted an aggressive policy to define Republicans early and make the election a choice rather than a referendum.

One Democratic strategist put it bluntly: "Some candidates always prefer to run on their own records of service. That's just not going to cut it this time around."

Take three more examples from Tuesday's primaries: Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Meek's first primary ad hit businessman Jeff Greene hard -- setting the tone for a convincing primary win despite being heavily outspent.

On the GOP side, McCain used a $21 million blitz featuring mostly negative ads to destroy former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. He won easily.

Meanwhile, Murkowski held her fire against attorney Joe Miller until the last 24 hours of the primary and it appears to have cost her a Senate seat. (Caveat: There are still thousands of uncounted absentee ballots and a recount could follow once the counting is completed.)

Democratic Senate candidates are, not surprisingly, taking the McCain rather than the Murkowski approach.

Some examples:

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was up with an attack ad three days after Sharron Angle's (R) June primary win, hitting her on wanting to privatize social security.

* Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) launched his first ad -- a negative one against Kelly Ayotte (R) -- three months before her primary, playing off a alleged Ponzi scheme that occurred during her time as state attorney general.

* Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D), despite facing his own problems with the failure of his family's bank, went negative on Rep. Mark Kirk (R) with his first general election ad in April.

* Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's (D) first ad focused on Rep. Roy Blunt's (R) vote for the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout.

* Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) launched her first two ads of the general election last week, and while one explains her health care vote, the other hits Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.) on Social Security privatization.

* Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) doesn't mention his opponent in his first ad, but the target is clear when he says, "the special interests and lobbyists already have enough senators on their side." Ellsworth's opponent, former Sen. Dan Coats (R), was a lobbyist after leaving the Senate.

When candidates haven't gone negative with their very first ads, it's often been their second ad that took a more contrasting tone. That's been the case with Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) and Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Melancon's second ad was particularly hard-hitting, going after Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) for his prostitution scandal and a former aide who allegedly cut his girlfriend.

The "negative first" strategy has also been employed by several Democrats running for governor and the House. Reps. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and Ron Klein (D-Fla.) launched new ads within hours of their primaries on Tuesday hitting their new GOP opponents on Social Security privatization and personal financial issues, respectively. Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio) launched his first ad -- a negative one -- in June.

Democrats may take some heat for the aggressive strategy, but they believe it represents the only path many of their candidates have to victory in the fall.

By Aaron Blake  | August 27, 2010; 12:16 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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