He says he made no conscious decision to let his injured hand be seen. “The psychology of it all, I don’t know. Maybe I’m more comfortable now in this position,” Tester said last month in his Senate office.
Last fall, the committee that organizes on behalf of Republican Senate candidates created an attack ad featuring a photo of Tester greeting President Obama. The picture showed the senator with his left hand reaching toward the president, and that hand suddenly had all its fingers.
Tester’s campaign spokesman decried “the made-up photo” at the time. But that odd distortion by his opponents might have inadvertently served the senator well. The digital trickery brought more focus to the senator’s childhood accident than the senator might have on his own. The actual hand evokes something indelible about Tester’s life story, about dangerous farm chores, about overcoming adversity.
Candidates use every possible medium and every possible milestone in their lives to boost their prospects when party affiliation isn’t enough — or is potentially lethal. And often their most powerful asset is the most personal anecdote. There are perhaps no better trust-building vehicles than biographical spots. Such ads unspool in heavy rotation during the first half of the election year and prep the electorate for message and attack ads later on. These early commercials use their precious seconds to reinforce a connection to the home state, not the Hill.
“Of course, Jon Tester is not going to talk about his vote for health care or President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees,” said Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which produced the ad showing Tester with an intact left hand. “If it’s an election on the issues, he’s gonna lose.” Asked what he thought of the manipulation of the photo, Jesmer would only offer: “I don’t think anything of it.”
While Tester is a Democrat running in a Republican-dominated state, Sen. Scott Brown has the opposite problem in his bid for his reelection. The Massachusetts Republican cloaks himself in red, white and blue as he and his wife sport Red Sox jackets in his campaign ad called “Opening Day.” The baseball-crowd montage takes on nothing more challenging than the adoration of Fenway Park. Another atmospheric ad records the good tidings exchanged during a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Worcester; Brown is clad in a green-and-white striped scarf.
Local color acts as camouflage in other Senate races. “What are elements of the candidate’s personality that are going to work the best? Sometimes it’s using humor, sometimes it’s using emotion,” said Mark Putnam, a strategist who makes ads for Democratic candidates. “And Democrats are maybe a little more daring.”