WASHINGTON – For critical Senate races, Republicans are turning to the playbook that served them so well in the 2010 elections. They're saturating the airwaves with political ads detailing the perils of "Obamacare" and the nation's growing debt.
Democrats have added Medicare to the equation, trying to make the case that revamping the government health care program for older people would virtually destroy it.
As the Nov. 6 election fast approaches, political strategists and ad writers are pointing to what they believe this year's vote is about: defending Medicare, creating jobs and standing up to powerful interest, whether it's Big Oil, big banks or big Washington.
Each state has distinct differences that shape the messages of each race. In conservative-leaning states such as Arizona, Montana and Indiana, the strategy for Democratic candidates is to seek distance from President Barack Obama and display a strong sense of independence. They need to get voters to forgo casting straight party-line ballots. Republicans have tried their best to reinforce links between Obama and Democratic candidates.
In Arizona, Republican Jeff Flake's first ad after his primary victory pointed out that former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona was recruited by the president to run for the Senate as a Democrat, and that while Flake opposes the president's health insurance overhaul, Carmona supports it.
"Obama's man in Arizona? Or Jeff Flake, Arizona's man in Washington? Some decisions are just easier than others," the ad's narrator says.
In Montana, twins Linda and Marsha Frey contend that a vote for Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is tantamount to a vote for Obama. After all, Tester voted for the economic stimulus package and the health care overhaul, they note. "They may not be twins, but they might as well be," the ladies chime.
Tester won in Montana six years ago, in part, because he was able to convince voters of his independence. Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg has tried to chip away at those impressions by showing how often Tester and Obama are on the same side on the issues.
Enter the Frey sisters. Rehberg's team was conducting "man on the street interviews" for a television commercial when the sisters showed up. Rehberg's campaign manager and media consultant saw the identical twins in their matching outfits and had an idea.
"They had such great personalities and I started scratching my head and pulled our media guy aside and I said, "Don't these two represent what we've been trying to say all along? They are a visual for what we've been trying to say: Tester and Obama are twins," said Erik Iverson, Rehberg's campaign manager.
The Rehberg camp wrote a script within the hour and cut the ad that afternoon. It spent more than $100,000 to air the ads during the Republican and Democratic conventions. The more Montana voters associate Tester with Obama, the more likely he is to lose because of the president's low favorability ratings. The ads' effectiveness, Iverson said, is evident in campaign's internal polling. In February, only 1 of 5 voters surveyed by the campaign answered that Tester voted with Obama's position more than 90 percent of the time. Now, more than half do. Rehberg wins handily with that group of voters.
To have any chance of winning, it's critical for Democratic candidates in those conservative states to display their independence.
In Indiana, Democrat Joe Donnelly explains in an ad that he would work across party lines to extend all the income tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush, even those for the wealthy. He's incorporated a theme within his political ads, casting his opponent, Richard Mourdock, as an ultra-conservative ideologue who doesn't compromise. His ads end with a man named "The Mourdock Way" yelling out obnoxiously "Hey, Donnelly, it's my way or the highway,"
Donnelly's campaign spokeswoman, Elizabeth Shappell, said internal polling shows that "highway" now stands out as one of the most frequently cited words that voters associate with Mourdock, who defeated Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary by rallying the tea party to his camp.
Mourdock has responded with an ad of his own called "teammate."
"Richard's a great teammate and he'll work with Republicans and Democrats to create jobs," Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman says in the ad.
The health care overhaul that Congress passed in 2010 continues to reverberate in this year's elections. GOP candidates say it represents government overreach and they're working to counter Democratic charges that Republicans are out to eliminate Medicare.
For example, in North Dakota, GOP Rep. Rick Berg says in an ad that Democrat Heidi Heitkamp supports Obamacare, cutting $716 billion from Medicare and putting a few unelected bureaucrats in charge of the program. The ad succinctly explains his plan: "Repeal Obamacare and its cuts to Medicare. No changes for those 55 and over. And protects Medicare for future generations."
Ads on behalf of Democrats emphasizing a GOP proposal that would replace the current fee-for-service system in Medicare with one that instead gives a subsidy to purchase their health insurance. Berg voted for such a system. Heitkamp enlists breast cancer survivor Margaret Gilmour to explain why she didn't support such a plan.
"Rick Berg is worth $24 million, but he voted to increase premiums by $6,400 to pay for a tax break for millionaires like himself. I wouldn't be alive today if Medicare cost that much" Gilmour tells viewers.
The $6,400 figure comes from a Congressional Budget Office analysis of a plan the House passed in 2011. GOP lawmakers in the House since have tweaked the proposal to give beneficiaries a choice of buying a private plan or to purchase a traditional Medicare plan.
A September poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation makes clear the importance of Medicare in this year's elections. It trails only the economy and the deficit as priorities for voters. The poll also found that 55 percent of Americans prefer keeping Medicare as it's currently structured, while 37 percent favor a premium support system with a traditional Medicare option of the sort called for by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Another big issue in Senate races is employment. But candidates rarely get into many specifics in their ads.
In Wisconsin, Democrat Tammy Baldwin says China violates international trade laws and she passed legislation in the House to restore expiring trade penalties that protected the state's paper mills. Republican Tommy Thompson reminds voters of his days as governor. "Tommy created thousands of jobs and ended welfare," a voter explains.
Of course, every election season has its odd moments, such as Thompson's ad showing him dressed in black and riding his Harley on an open Wisconsin road. He says he would be the 51st vote to repeal the health law, but the message may not be as lasting as the image of Thompson in some bad boy poses atop his bike.
The two candidates in Florida are talking Hooters. There's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson's ad pointing out that Republican Connie Mack is a "promoter for Hooters with a history of bar room brawling, altercations and road rage."
Mack's ad response: "Who cares?" "Bill Nelson, like a typical career politician, wants to talk about Hooters and what I did as a kid."
View selected Senate campaign ads here: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/political-ads