“How do you go from working in a family seed business in Iowa to fighting for Iowans at the highest levels?” a narrator intones in an ad for Rep. Tom Latham (R-
The highest levels of what, exactly? The ad notes that Latham took “Iowa common sense” to Washington and voted against the stimulus package — but never exactly spells out that he has served at the highest levels of the U.S. government — in Congress — since 1995.
There are years when incumbents can tout their experience and legislative achievements as they seek reelection. This is not one of those years, as the approval ratings of the gridlocked Congress have begun to approach the popularity of pond scum among an increasingly disenchanted electorate.
The result is that consultants and strategists who run congressional campaigns appear to be employing some artful ad copy to avoid mentioning that their candidates are members of Congress. “They don’t use their title. They don’t refer to their years of service. They don’t show pictures of themselves in committee meetings,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan congressional analyst, explaining the incumbent-as-outsider strategy. “They have to acknowledge the anger, the frustration. They’ve got to run as agents of change,” he said.
Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.), who is running for the Senate, appeared in a campaign ad earlier this year with his mother, Francie.
“I want to tell you about my son, Rick Berg,” she said, seated at a kitchen table next to him. She said that he had grown up on a farm, working cattle, bailing hay and learning the value of a dollar. She vouched for his knowledge of “the North Dakota way.”
She declined to mention that he also knows at least something about the Washington way, having served as North Dakota’s only member of Congress since 2011.
Campaign officials generally deny that their candidates are ducking the congressional label, and it is hard to deny or obscure membership in that body. But after more than a year of bitter disputes on Capitol Hill — a handful of near government shutdowns, a showdown over raising the nation’s legal borrowing limit last summer, the utter failure of a special deficit-reduction “supercommittee” — it’s clear that this year, even the incumbents are running as outsiders who say they will shake the place up. Although this is not an entirely new strategy, more incumbents may be forced to embrace it, given the political climate.
Congressional approval ratings, once as low as 10 percent, have lifted to a comparatively rosy 17 percent. But they have not been above 20 percent all year, making Congress the least popular branch of government by far.
“When Congress has at best a 20 percent approval rating, it’s pretty hard to run as an incumbent,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist and admaker. “The best and only thing candidates can do is to vigorously point out every reason why you are not like the rest of your colleagues.”