Democrats Aim to Localize 2012 Senate Races

Democrats Aim to Localize 2012 Senate Races

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - November 3, 2011

Senate Democrats hoping to retain their slim majority in the upper chamber of Congress are borrowing an election strategy from the House playbook: keep the elections local.

For the 2012 cycle, Democrats are advising their incumbents and recruits to make their individual elections "a choice between the two people on the ballot . . . and not simply allow it to be a nationalized election," said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, at a briefing with reporters Thursday hosted by the centrist think tank Third Way. "I think it's part of the reason why we were successful in Colorado, and I think it's part of the reason why we will be successful in a lot of these incumbent states around the country."

Localizing Senate races in a presidential election year, though, is a tricky undertaking. And it suggests Democrats recognize that preserving their majority means defending seats in states they know President Obama is likely to lose. To do that, they are playing offense hard and early. In Republican primaries in Florida and Indiana, for example, they are pushing the narrative that the Tea Party is moving the GOP so far to the right that candidates will say anything to get their party's nomination. In Nevada they are targeting Dean Heller for supporting Rep. Paul Ryan's budget that alters Medicare, and in Montana they are slamming Denny Rehberg for equating Pell Grants to welfare. And they plan to soak the airwaves with ads in the final stretches of these races. In Florida, for example, "by September 1 through the election, you're not going to be seeing the Geico lizard; it's going to be all politics, all the time for the last two months of that election," Cecil quipped.

Even though they currently hold a majority, Senate Democrats have a difficult task ahead of them. They are working with a large map and have 23 seats to defend, compared to 10 for the Republicans. The GOP needs to win four Democratic seats in order to win the majority in the Senate, and the party is targeting four red states that didn't swing for Obama in 2008: Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota.

Having the president's name on the same ballot poses an additional challenge for Democrats running in red states, which is why Democrats will try to make each race a two-candidate contest rather than a three-candidate one.

Republicans counter that the Democratic incumbents' records make it difficult for them to move away from Obama.

"That theory might have some relevance if the elections were taking place in fantasy land, but in reality they're taking place in states that have borne the brunt of the Democrats' failed economic policies, which every one of their candidates is on record supporting," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "At the end of the day, the president is on the top of the ticket with all of these senators. Coupled with that, senators like Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill and Ben Nelson have voted for a lot of his major spending initiatives. They're tied to the hip with the president."

Cecil insists that 2012 will be different, however. The races in "2006, 2008, and 2010, by every estimation, were nationalized elections. They were macro elections, and I think more than anything else this election has the capacity to be a micro election, an election that really affects every state differently and every race differently," said Cecil, who ran Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet's winning 2010 campaign. "The question is: Do you have the resources to separate yourself?"

The DSCC believes it does. It has hired 21 full-time trackers to collect opposition data in the field, and has 10 full-time state party communications directors. The committee has slightly outraised its Republican counterpart so far this cycle and will focus much of its spending on shoring up the most vulnerable candidates.

"We're raising more money this cycle than we did in 2006," said Cecil. "We will spend in many cases more than the candidates themselves spend. In 2006 with Claire McCaskill, McCaskill raised $11.5 million, and the DSCC spent $16.5 million on that race. We're as committed now as we have been."

McCaskill, a first-term senator from Missouri, is among the most vulnerable incumbents the Democrats have to protect. She was one of the earliest supporters of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy in 2008, but her state voted for John McCain. She has made clear she supports the president but doesn't agree with him on many issues. Republicans have placed a bull's-eye on her back and are tracking when she does and doesn't appear with the president when he visits the state.

They are also targeting Tester of Montana and Nebraska's Nelson, who hasn't decided whether he will run for re-election. Cecil demurred when asked whether Nelson, on whom Democrats have already spent over $1 million defending, will run again but said the seat is still in play for Democrats.

Republicans are also hoping to pick up North Dakota and Virginia, which are both being vacated by retiring Democratic incumbents Kent Conrad and Jim Webb, respectively. Cecil says Democrats can keep both seats. For example, Tim Kaine, former DNC chair and governor of Virginia, will do better than most Democrats would in red Richmond, Cecil argued. He also said Democrats have a shot at GOP-held seats in Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts and Nevada, because Republicans running for those seats have served or currently serve as a member of Congress and won't be able to play into an anti-incumbent narrative.

But while Democrats and Republicans fight for the balance of power in the House and Senate, President Obama is campaigning against a "do-nothing Congress." Asked by a reporter whether the president's slogan will have an impact, Cecil argued that incumbent Democrats are running ahead of the president in their respective states.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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