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Which Senate candidates are waiting to go negative (and why)

Updated: 5:10 p.m.

By Felicia Sonmez

Amid an electoral environment that spells increasingly bad news for Democrats, many members of the party in power have gone up with negative ads (especially, as The Fix noted last month, in their first campaign ads).

But with 49 days left until the general election, several Democrats in competitive races have held off on going negative -- a gamble that may (or may not) pay off.

Yesterday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) launched her first general election TV ad -- see above -- in her race against former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (R). The 30-second spot made no mention of Fiorina and instead highlighted Boxer's efforts to create jobs and fight on behalf of veterans and students.

Until yesterday, neither Boxer nor Fiorina had posted any general election TV ads -- a reflection of the massive costs associated with advertising in California. (Boxer was already being hammered by TV ads run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the conservative group Crossroads GPS.)

Jim Margolis, whose firm, GMMB, produced the Boxer ad, pointed to several factors in the campaign's decision to kick off with a positive ad, including the fact that California is such a large state that it's difficult for most Californians to have a personal relationship with their senator.

"People need to know the Boxer part of the equation," Margolis said. "Voters need to know that you're fighting for them. In these challenging economic times, they need to have as a piece of the equation that you're out there every single day."

Margolis also noted that Fiorina had already aired TV ads during her competitive primary back in June, and that candidates in states where it's less expensive to go on TV can afford to be at a different stage of the campaign than someone running in California.

Boxer's ad sets her apart from the other five Democratic incumbents running in competitive Senate races this cycle, all of whom have gone negative against their general election opponents.

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet's (Colo.) first general election ad against Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck (R) late last month was a hard-hitting minute-long spot using Buck's own words against him. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) has been blasting former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle (R) on the airwaves since June.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) has launched several negative ads against her opponent, Rep. John Boozman (R). Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) aired her most recent negative ad against former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R) last week. And, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) released his latest negative ad against businessman Ron Johnson (R) this week.

The dangers of waiting too long to go negative in an electoral atmosphere where underfunded underdogs are rising far more quickly than in years past has been proven by several incumbents already this cycle.

Just last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) lost her reelection bid in a primary to little-known attorney Joe Miller (R). Murkowski didn't do herself any favors by refusing national party strategists' advice to go negative.

Murkowski's strategy stood in stark contrast to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who spent $21 million on a campaign that decimated his primary opponent, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R).

Meanwhile, Democrats in competitive open-seat Senate races (or facing Republican incumbents) have a different set of challenges -- including the need to raise their profile and favorability ratings among voters across the state before beginning to contrast their campaigns with their opponents'.

As a result, fewer of those candidates have gone negative so far this cycle: In the 11 competitive open-seat and challenger races (as rated by political handicapper Charlie Cook), seven Democratic contenders have gone negative while four have not.

Some of those who have gone negative, such as Democratic Reps. Paul Hodes (N.H.) and Charlie Melancon (La.), began attacking their general election opponents even before they emerged from their primaries. (Melancon aired an especially hard-hitting ad against Sen. David Vitter (R) in August, while Hodes has taken shots at the New Hampshire Senate GOP frontrunner, state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, ahead of today's primary.)

Other Democrats going negative include: Rep. Joe Sestak (Pa.), Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.

And earlier today, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway (D) launched his first negative ad of his race against ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R).

Those Democrats who have shied away from negative ads include Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth, Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D).

Of those five candidates who have yet to go negative -- Boxer, Blumenthal, Ellsworth, Meek and Manchin -- Blumenthal's race will be especially worth keeping an eye on.

With this morning's Quinnipiac poll suggesting that former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon (R) may be closing the gap thanks to heavy personal spending on the campaign, Blumenthal is likely to come under increasing pressure to put up some negative ads. Democrats believe McMahon's professional wrestling ties provide a target-rich environment.

A Democratic source said that Blumenthal's camp "won't hesitate to set the record straight," but declined to say whether the campaign would be running negative ads. And a source close to Ellsworth's campaign said that the Democrat "will be aggressive in defining the choice for voters as we head into the final stretch."

Voters decry negative ads, but the simple fact -- proven over years and years of campaigns -- is that they work. That's doubly true in an election cycle like this one where Democrats must turn each race into a choice between themselves and their Republican opponent, rather than a referendum on President Obama and the party's control of Congress, if they hope to win.

For those Democrats who have yet to take the plunge, it's likely only a matter of days before they turn their fire on Republicans. Whether those attacks work or are dismissed by voters more focused on the economy and the balance power in Washington will be a telling indicator of whether the Senate majority is truly in play.

By Felicia Sonmez  | September 14, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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