The Deep Cynicism Of ‘Nationalizing’ Or ‘Localizing’ Midterm Elections

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One of the great debates surrounding every midterm election is whether the many congressional and state contests have been “nationalized” or are instead subject to “local factors.” This question is to some extent a reflection of the perpetual argument between political analysts (usually political scientists) who emphasize “fundamentals” that follow similar patterns around the country, and those (usually journalists or self-lionizing political consultants) who emphasize the ebb and flow of particular campaigns and the quality of candidates and their many help-meets.

But even the “game change” faction of political gabbers believes some midterms are “nationalized” — via the shrewd efforts of candidates, party leaders and consultants, of course, not because of ineluctable external dynamics. Personally, I’d say the steady decline of ticket-splitting makes some “nationalization” of campaigns more and more likely, but there are always exceptions at the margins.

One thing we can all agree on is that some candidates hope and pray for a “nationalized” election while others fear it like political death itself. And some candidates want to stand out as distinctive characters separate from their party or demonstrated ideology, while others would just as soon be thought of as generic party representatives riding a “wave.”

In the former category, of course, are candidates running on “enemy turf,” Democrats in red states and Republicans in blue states. An entirely “nationalized” election would leave them — especially Democrats in this second-term midterm — as collateral damage in a war determined by “fundamentals.” But even in the closest races, there are candidates with very specific reasons for running on their personal characteristics rather than The Party and its issues, and others who need the party yoke to survive.

A notable contrast is between two Republican candidates: Joni Ernst of Iowa and David Perdue of Georgia.

Self-handicapped with an unusually extreme version of her party’s issue profile — she’s basically Sharron Angle with a side order of Todd Aiken — Ernst is all about her personality, or perhaps we should say her persona — the mother/farmer/soldier, and all-around salt of the earth embodiment of salty, earthy, Iowa. Her campaign ads — the first and most famous touted her experience with castrating hogs as making her an expert on how to cut “pork” from the federal budget — have drawn praise for being memorable and evocative, and mockery for being, well, if not stupid then very light on substance.

But they’re far more effective than defending or denying support for zygote Personhood or the John Birch Society’s Agenda 21 conspiracy theory or “second Amendment solutions” to Big Government or the need to get tough on Social Security beneficiaries, all positions Ernst has embraced in the recent past. Her Democratic opponent, on the other hand, has wrong-footed himself on non-substantive “personality” issues, especially in allegedly disrespecting both Iowa Senior Senator Chuck Grassley and Iowa farmers in a single throwaway comment at a fundraiser that went viral on YouTube. So without a doubt, Ernst would like the outcome to be as unseriously motivated as possible and ride to the Senate on the basis of her particularly local advantage in personality and biography.

David Perdue, on the other hand, would probably prefer to sneak across the finish line as the most generic of Republicans, and rely on issue contrasts with Democratic opponent Michelle Nunn. That’s ironic, since Perdue ran a very Ernst-like primary campaign emphasizing his biography as a business executive, and relying on cleverly stupid, or stupidly clever ads depicting his opponents as crying babies. But now his background has become a handicap thanks to disclosure of comments he made describing himself as a champion of outsourcing, followed by some very clumsy efforts to defend them (“I’m proud of it” was a notably dubious gambit). Suddenly Mr. Outsider Businessman is looking like Mitt Romney without the Olympics or the gubernatorial term. So Perdue’s appeal to swing voters depends on exploiting Georgia’s red character in a midterm election, not to mention the state’s peculiar majority-vote requirement that could deliver him a Senate seat via a low-turnout January runoff election.

What Ernst and Perdue have in common is a desire that Election Day arrive as soon as possible before Democratic efforts to focus on Ernst’s issue positions and Perdue’s biography sink in any further. And both could win or lose whether the election turns out to be primarily “national” or “local” in terms of the overall results. One thing’s for sure: the consultants who drove both candidates to follow their particular course in the home stretch will get paid, and we’ll see them again in 2016.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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