Blunt, Bayh Face Similar Attacks in Senate Races

Blunt, Bayh Face Similar Attacks in Senate Races
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Two candidates in critical races that could determine control of the Senate are being attacked as Washington insiders who have closer ties to lobbyists than to their home states. But the attacks aren’t partisan: One’s a Democrat trying to make a comeback in a GOP-leaning state, and the other’s a longtime Republican in a red state facing the toughest race of his career. 

In Missouri, Democrat Jason Kander is surging against Republican Roy Blunt, focusing much of his fire on the incumbent’s longtime political career and the fact that his wife and children are registered lobbyists.

Meanwhile, Indiana Rep. Todd Young has closed a large gap in the polls against former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh as Republicans have seized on multiple news reports about Bayh’s work in Washington after leaving the upper chamber.

Both races are close three weeks before Election Day, and both are crucial to determining which party gains or retains control of the Senate. Republicans hold a four-seat majority, but are defending a number of incumbents in competitive races. Democrats hope victories in Indiana and Missouri, two red states that will likely go for Donald Trump, could expand their chances of regaining the majority, while Republicans hope that securing victories in these states will help them narrowly maintain their hold on the chamber.

In the Hoosier State, the attacks on Bayh began almost immediately after he decided to enter the race in early July, and his record after the Senate has faced intense scrutiny in the months since then. The Associated Press reported last week that Bayh spent much of his final year in the Senate searching for private-sector jobs while voting on issues of interest to his future employers.

That followed reports that he has wielded influence on policy matters in Washington while working for a major law firm even though he never registered as a lobbyist. There were also reports questioning how much time he spends at his Indianapolis condominium compared to his homes in Washington. Republican attack ads against the former two-term senator and governor have featured headlines from those articles prominently.

Many of the ads come from Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that has reserved more than $4 million in Indiana ad buys. The ads against Bayh have relentlessly attacked him as a D.C. insider.

“Bayh’s behavior is everything that’s wrong with Washington,” said the narrator of one ad, highlighting details from an Associated Press story about his post-Senate career.

“He’s made Washington work … for Evan Bayh,” said the narrator in another ad that highlights details of Bayh’s work at a law firm, originally cited in a Politico article.

Bayh’s campaign has pushed back strongly on the attacks. In response to the AP article, his campaign spokesman, Ben Ray, said the Democratic candidate’s career had been “about standing up for Hoosiers, including taking on Wall Street Banks and Big Oil. … Evan Bayh voted for the largest Wall Street reforms in generations, voted to close the carried interest tax loophole, and voted repeatedly against tax breaks for oil companies.”

And Democrats also haven’t ceded the insider attacks to Republicans. One ad, from Senate Majority PAC, a group aligned with Minority Leader Harry Reid, labels three-term Rep. Young as a “Washington politician out for himself” and features a woman talking about college affordability for her children.

“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them. It’s going to be a struggle to send them to college. I really don’t understand Washington politicians like Congressman Young, who would make it harder,” the woman says.

In Missouri, the attacks against Blunt have followed a similar trajectory. Democrats have attacked him for his family connections to lobbyists, and last week a report from USA Today raised questions about whether the freshman senator lives in Missouri or Washington.

Democratic ads have made this theme central to the argument against the incumbent. In one, from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, several actors say, “I want to be Roy Blunt” after repeated criticisms of him, including that he’s married to a Washington lobbyist, has children who are lobbyists, and voted to raise congressional pay. The first woman in the ad refers to him as a “Washington insider.”

In addition, the outside group Majority Forward and AFSCME, a major labor union, released an ad accusing Blunt of putting a provision benefiting tobacco companies into the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security. It also highlighted that his wife and son lobbied for a company that pushed for the provision.

“It’s Washington at its worst and why 20 years is long enough,” the narrator says, referencing Blunt’s long tenure in the House before ascending to the upper chamber in 2011. Politifact rated the ad as mostly true.

To double down on that strategy, the positive ads from the Kander camp have leaned into the outsider vs. insider theme. In three different ads, the Democratic candidate faces the camera directly and says, “We won’t change Washington until we change the people we send there."

Asked for comment about the attack strategy, Kander’s campaign spokesman, Chris Hayden, repeated the phrase.

“Jason's message has been the same since day one, you can't change Washington unless you change the people you send there,” he said in a statement. “Not everyone who goes to Washington turns away from their home state, but Senator Blunt certainly has during his 20 years in Congress fighting for lobbyists and special interests.”

Burson Snyder, a spokeswoman for Blunt’s campaign, pushed back on that narrative, calling Kander “the insider in this race.” She pointed to a Roll Call report showing K Street lobbyists beginning to form relationships with the challenger months before the election, as well as a recent ad from the Blunt campaign suggesting the Kander attacks were false and calling the Democrat “another lying, liberal politician.”

“The insider in this race is Jason Kander, a national chair on Hillary Clinton's campaign whose own campaign is supported by Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, Elizabeth Warren and more,” Snyder said in a statement. “They support him because he will be another vote for their agenda of amnesty for illegal immigrants, expanding ObamaCare, and a national energy tax.  Kander continues to talk about everything except the issues Missourians care about, because his own liberal views are so far outside the mainstream.”

Despite all this heated rhetoric, Kander has surged in recent weeks, though Blunt still holds a 2.3 percentage point lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average. But some private polling from both sides has shown the challenger even with or narrowly ahead of Blunt, and some in the GOP worry that Kander’s attacks have had a major impact.

One GOP operative focused on Senate races, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said the attacks have been used against Blunt before, but are being more effectively packaged by the Kander campaign.

“There’s no new information there, but they are skillfully packaging it, and what they are doing better than anything is contrasting it with Kander, who they hold out as an independent voice,” the operative said. “They’ve been able to define him pretty successfully as a former military veteran, a moderate.”

A second GOP operative admitted the attacks against Blunt’s family working as lobbyists have been somewhat effective, but argued they have not had nearly the impact as the GOP attacks against Bayh in Indiana.

“I think the family connection argument is having an effect, but I just don’t think that’s as potent as being able to attack the candidate for going Washington to become a lobbyist,” the operative said. “And I think that as a result, you’re seeing a much more dramatic swing in Indiana than in Missouri.”

Democrats, for their part, argue that Bayh is in relatively good shape, despite weathering a storm of attacks over the last several months that have caused his lead -- which was in double digits, according to internal polls when he entered the race -- to narrow significantly.  He leads by 3.5 percentage points in the RCP average, and a recent poll by Monmouth University showed him up six points over Young. Democrats believe that Bayh, who served two terms as governor of Indiana and two as senator, has built up more goodwill in his state than Blunt has in Missouri, which they argue will allow him to survive the Washington insider attacks.

“While the people of Missouri know Roy Blunt as a career politician, the Bayh record in Indiana is respected and loved,” said one Democratic strategist working on Senate races.

Republicans dispute the Monmouth poll, however, and argue the race is essentially tied. Josh Holmes, a top Republican strategist and former chief of staff to McConnell, said the trajectory for Indiana puts the momentum squarely behind Young.

“I think there’s no question that’s where the race is,” Holmes said. “It’s by no means over, but I would much rather be Todd Young than Evan Bayh at this particular standpoint."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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