As voters soured on the Bush Administration over the past three years, the political environment rapidly deteriorated for the GOP. Today, Republicans are weighed down by their party label, and any candidate who comes to be perceived as a typical Bush Republican is in grave risk.
That simple national dynamic is affecting the electoral strategies of both major parties up and down the ballot, and nowhere more transparently than in the presidential race. Obama has sought to tie McCain to President Bush; his ads warn voters against opting for "more of the same" and they mock McCain's claims that he can address the economic crisis by painting him as woefully out of touch. Meanwhile, McCain has all but tossed out his party affiliation since his convention and has recast himself as the maverick who will reform the Republican Party -- and the country as a whole.
In what has become something of an echo chamber, ads running in congressional races use the same arguments, the same imagery and often the same slogans as those John McCain and Barack Obama are hurling at each other.
Democrats want voters to think of November as an opportunity to vote against George W. Bush, and images of the President embracing, praising, hugging various Republicans are popping up in Democratic ads across the country. "He says he's independent," mocks the announcer of a DSCC spot running against Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, "but on the economy Republican Gordon Smith couldn't be closer to George Bush."
In a DSCC ad airing in New Hampshire, the announcer warns that Senator "John Sununu made his choice, now we need to make hours" as a picture of Sununu and Bush comes up on the screen. In another New Hampshire ad, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen uses a clip of Bush praising Sununu for standing "with me from the beginning." Michigan Rep. Joe Knollenberg is described as Bush's "foot soldier" and Ohio state Senator Steve Stivers, running for an open House seat, is blasted as "more of the same."
More than anything, Democrats are fond of using statistics of an incumbent's voting behavior. Obama has been hammering McCain for voting with Bush "90% of the time," while Democrats are running ads throwing similar numbers at North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole (92%, says Kay Hagan's spot) and John Sununu (90%, just like John McCain's). Even former lawmakers are targeted: Former Rep. Jeb Bradley of New Hampshire is attempting a political comeback this year, but a DCCC ad points out that, "while in Congress," he voted with Bush 85% of the time.
In what is perhaps the most interesting parallel to the presidential race, McCain is not the only Republican in trouble for praising the "fundamentals" of our economy. The DCCC has ads running in New Jersey and in Connecticut highlighting statements made by candidate Chris Myers - "the economy is basically strong" - and incumbent Chris Shays - "our economy is fundamentally strong." In fact, the spot running against Shays is a carbon copy of an ad the Obama campaign released in early September, as they both juxtapose footage of McCain or Shays statements on the economy's fundamentals with a nearly identical sentence uttered by Bush.
Meanwhile, Republicans are doing their best to protect themselves by shying away from their party label and by convincing voters they are not beholden to their party. New election rules in Washington allow candidates to choose how their party affiliation will appear on the ballot, and while most other of his party's statewide candidates have kept the Republican designation, gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi is listed under the somewhat mysterious "GOP party." In Minnesota, Senator Norm Coleman describes himself as "one of the most independent Senators" in one ad, while another portrays Coleman as a fearless reformer with buzzwords like "watchdog," "exposed" and "uncovered." New Hampshire's Sununu also wants to come across as a man of action. In a recent ad, he lists positions that have put him at odds with his party's leadership and asks, "Popular position? Not with Republicans in Washington."
Perhaps no Republican has gone quite as far as Gordon Smith, who has aired ads touting his relationship with John Kerry and Barack Obama. In a spot that could have been aired by just about any politician -- Democratic, Republican or independent -- Smith pledges to work with whomever the next president and to find "common ground." While Oregon leans blue, it is not an overwhelmingly Democratic state, making Smith's strategy all the more interesting.
Yet, in this game of message amplification, it is Democrats who stand to gain the most, and Republicans who face the greatest pitfalls.
GOP candidates are trying to convince voters that they are not the typical Republican, that they are unique and can take on the party establishment. But that argument risks becoming a caricature if all Republican candidates say the same thing. It's one thing for McCain to brand himself as an anti-establishment firebrand, but the entire party cannot credibly run against itself without it becoming a transparent stunt. Can a voter in New Hampshire's first district come to believe that John McCain, John Sununu and Jeb Bradley are all mavericks? If so, who is the establishment?
There is the parallel possibility that the use of the Bush tag becomes a caricature and thus loses its effectiveness, but the risk is less important as there is nothing contradictory in the Democrats' argument that the entire Republican Party is tarnished by the Bush years. For a voter in North Carolina to hear over and over again that McCain, Dole and vulnerable Rep. Robin Hayes are all "more of the same" serves as an indictment of the GOP as a whole.
By amplifying the volume of Obama's multi-million ad campaign, the Democrats' down-the-ballot TV spots could help ensure that Bush remains on the minds of voters when they go to the polls on November 4th.