WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans are framing the elections in starkly different terms, with GOP strategists painting it as a national referendum on President Barack Obama and the party in power, and Democrats working feverishly to make all politics local.
The outcome will help determine whether Republicans take control of the House, the Senate or both. It also may profoundly affect Obama's agenda for the next two years.
Republicans have every reason to try to nationalize the Nov. 2 election, when voters will fill all 435 House seats, 36 Senate seats and 37 governorships. Democrats succeeded in the elections of 2006 and 2008 by focusing on President George W. Bush's tenure, Republicans' performance in Congress and the Iraq war; the GOP hopes to turn the tables now.
Polls show significant discontent with policies linked to Obama and congressional Democrats, including rising deficits and bank bailouts. The latest AP-GfK survey found that 60 percent of those questioned think the nation is heading in the wrong direction, and 73 percent disapprove of the Democratic-led Congress.
Polls also show significantly higher energy and enthusiasm among conservative voters than liberals.
GOP strategists believe they can sustain this wave and ride it to victory if they can focus voters' attention on overarching complaints against Obama and Democratic lawmakers: government overreach, big spending, Washington intrusion.
"It's going to be a national election," said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, head of the Republican committee overseeing House races. He said Republicans will run on broad themes, such as arguing that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's agenda for health care, energy and labor unions is destroying jobs.
Even if Pelosi, D-Calif., isn't well-known to some voters, Sessions said, "I think they're aware that America is under one-party rule."
Democrats are pushing a very different narrative.
The election will be "a choice between two candidates in every congressional district," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Democrats' counterpart to Sessions.
Van Hollen pointed to the May 18 special House election in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Mark Critz surprised pundits by easily defeating Republican Tim Burns. Republicans "made the election all about Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi," Van Hollen said, while Critz stuck to bread-and-butter issues such as job creation and his deep familiarity with the district.
Republicans, stung by the loss, note that Critz rejected Obama's health care and energy initiatives, which most congressional Democrats supported and must defend this fall.
Nonetheless, Democrats see the Critz victory as a blueprint for Election Day. They praise his campaign for reaching out to voters early to learn of their concerns, which shaped follow-up literature and calls.
Democratic officials say they are recruiting thousands of volunteers nationwide for an unusually early and aggressive voter-targeting effort. If local supporters talk to undecided voters about local candidates and concerns, these Democrats say, it can take the edge off Republicans' bid to nationalize the election and focus on Washington.
Of course, Democratic candidates can't avoid the national issues that agitate many voters, such as health care and deficit spending. But they have a better chance to make their case, Van Hollen said, if voters see the nominee as a local person with community ties.
"It's important to engage voters directly and personally, early on, and not just trying to call them up at the last minute," Van Hollen said.
That's what freshman Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., is trying to do in his tough re-election campaign. His votes for Obama's health care bill and cap-and-trade carbon-reduction bill make him a White House favorite, and a top GOP target.
Perriello's latest TV ad mirrors Van Hollen's philosophy: Make a personal, even folksy appeal to voters, and focus on job creation rather than sensitive issues such health care. Perriello mentions "jobs" six times in a humorous 30-second spot that shows him stepping in cow manure and spilling coffee on himself as he promotes new jobs on dairy farms, construction sites, police departments and elsewhere.
"No one will work harder to bring jobs to Virginia," he says.
His Republican challenger, Robert Hurt, is following his own party's advice to nationalize the election. His campaign Web site warns that "Pelosi & Co. and their wealthy liberal supporters around the country are pouring money into Perriello's campaign coffers."
Curiously, Democrats and Republicans alike seem to be treating Obama warily, at least for now.
Sessions, the House GOP campaign chief, focused his criticisms not on the president but on Pelosi, as have several other Republican candidates. Obama's personal approval ratings hover at about 50 percent, while his ratings for handling key issues tend to be lower.
Many Democrats seem inclined to hand Obama a rather narrow mission: wooing the millions of young and minority voters who rallied to his side in 2008 but who may skip the less-exciting 2010 midterm elections. Obama's political group, Organizing for America, "will focus on first-time Obama voters," Van Hollen said.
As president, Obama cannot sit out the election, and lately he has shown relish for the challenge.
At a recent Wisconsin event, Obama mocked senior Republican lawmakers for apologizing to BP after the Gulf oil spill and for minimizing the impact of the recession.
Republicans, Obama said, "think that our economy will do better if we just let the banks or the oil companies or the insurance industry make their own rules. They still believe that – even after the Wall Street crash, even after the BP oil well blew – that we should just keep a hands-off attitude."
Sessions is unimpressed. Voters are sick of the Democrats' big-government approach, he said, and neither presidential speeches nor early targeting efforts will make them less receptive to the GOP's call for change.
"We will have a very large bandwith of people who we are able to speak with," Sessions said.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: http://www.dccc.org
National Republican Congressional Committee: http://www.nrcc.org