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A Road Well-Traveled in Drive to Hold Power: Destroy the Opposition

A Road Well-Traveled in Drive to Hold Power: Destroy the Opposition

By Stuart Rothenberg - October 27, 2009

I had to chuckle when I read reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is preparing to run a decidedly negative campaign this year, with an unnamed adviser saying Reid would "vaporize" his opponent.

That's not exactly a new standard for the Nevada Democrat, who understands full well how to run a campaign and what he'll need to do to win a fifth term.

But the report in Politico, followed by reverberations in other media outlets, reminded me that there is no secret to how Democrats will try to hang onto their large majorities in the House and Senate next year if the national political environment is unfavorable: Destroy the opposition.

That strategy is standard operating procedure for incumbents, regardless of party, and it has been used for years. If your own negatives are high, drive up your opponent's. Make him or her as unpopular as you are, and voters will be faced with a different kind of choice.

It won't be a matter of which candidate voters like; it will be a question of which of the two unappealing candidates has the experience or has delivered for constituents. Voters will take the devil they know, not the devil they don't know, vulnerable incumbents will hope.

You can expect Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd (D) to use the same tactic against his eventual Republican challenger if he can't move his own numbers dramatically before Republicans pick a nominee against him.

GOP strategists particularly on the House side used this approach repeatedly from the mid-1990s through the 2006 election, when they found themselves overwhelmed by a partisan wave that they couldn't hold back.

Their strategy for a decade was clear: Hit the Democratic challenger again and again and yet again just for good measure to be sure that the opponent's name identification is upside down (a higher unfavorable than favorable rating).

Indeed, that's exactly what then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R) did to then-Gov. Jim Hunt (D) 25 years ago in North Carolina's 1984 Senate race, when Helms came from behind to beat the once-popular challenger by almost 4 points.

Reid's strategists apparently have been watching New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine's (D) re-election bid, noting his success in driving up Republican Chris Christie's negatives, even if they believe that Corzine waited too long to unload on his opponent. Still, there's a problem here.

While Corzine has boosted Christie's negatives, it hasn't helped the governor in the ballot test. His standing - in name identification, job performance and the ballot test - haven't budged.

Second, while the scorched-earth strategy often works for vulnerable incumbents, it doesn't always work. If it did, Republicans would not have lost the House and Senate in 2006. They certainly tried to do what had proved to be successful - and what Reid's strategist has promised to do.

When a party, or a candidate, is unpopular, it (or he) isn't an ideal messenger. Republicans used the same tactics in 2006 and 2008 that had proved effective since they took control of Congress in 1994, but the political environment had shifted and their attacks didn't stick on Democratic challengers the way they once had. Republicans weren't deemed credible messengers, so their attacks fell flat.

For Harry Reid, that's potentially a serious problem.

Multiple polls all show the same thing: Silver State voters have soured on the Senate Majority Leader. In many respects, his numbers look like Corzine's. But unfortunately for Reid, he isn't likely to have the benefit of a third-party candidate siphoning votes away from his Republican opponent.

In the eight head-to-head ballot tests conducted by three different polling firms over the past two months pitting Reid against either state Republican Chairwoman Sue Lowden or businessman/unsuccessful candidate Danny Tarkanian (R), Reid has drawn 39 percent to 43 percent of the vote.

Going back to May, there have been six different surveys testing Reid's name identification. His "unfavorable" ratings in the six have been as follows: 54 percent, 50 percent, 46 percent, 50 percent, 52 percent and 50 percent.

In January, just days after President Barack Obama's inauguration, a Republican poll found Reid's unfavorable rating to be 47 percent, and shortly after the 2008 election, a Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos (D) showed the Senator's unfavorable rating to be 54 percent.

The Senator showed $8.7 million in the bank at the end of September, and he has aired TV ads. But as long as his negatives remain high, and as long as his eventual GOP challenger has the resources to compete, Reid will be in for a fight. And he can't allow his race to be merely a referendum on his performance.

Anonymous threats to "vaporize" the opposition may make a cute quote in a newspaper story, but they sound less intimidating from the campaign of a candidate with unfavorable ratings in the low 50s. Still, it's probably the only strategy available to the Senate Majority Leader.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the The Rothenberg Political Report, and a regular columnist for Roll Call Newspaper.
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