The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrat finds a way to knock both the GOP and Obamacare in less than 30 seconds

Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Tex.), photographed in El Paso, Tex., in Aug. 2013. (Christ Chavez/For The Washington Post)
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So you're a Democratic congressman running in one of the most competitive reelection races this cycle, in a district that has flipped several times between both parties in the past decade. It's time to start airing TV ads. What do you do?

It seems that Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Tex.) has found a way to knock both House Republicans and President Obama. In less than 30 seconds.

The setting for the ad is a playground where the congressman's 9-year old, Nicolas, is seen playing with other young boys.

"When I tell my dad some kids don't play fair -- all he does is laugh," Nicolas says.

Cut to Gallego: "There isn't much difference between the playground at Nicolas' school and the floor of Congress, except when they take their ball and go home - we all get hurt," he says. "During the government shutdown, I didn't take my pay like others did. And I told the president 'no' to special treatment for Congress when he tried to exempt them from Obamacare."

In those two sentences, Gallego not only conjures up memories of last fall's government shutdown -- for which Americans generally blame congressional Republicans -- but also finds a way to needle Obama for the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, which remains unpopular across most of the country. Notably, Gallego doesn't say he opposes the law, widely known as Obamacare -- he merely name drops one of several GOP-backed measures he supported to change or chip away at the law.

The balance Gallego strikes -- by overtly offending both parties -- is notable when contrasted with messages by other vulnerable House Democrats.

There's Reps. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), who's airing a biographical spot that emphasizes how he likes to put "Arizona First." Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W. Va.), a perennially endangered Democrat, attacked super PACs in his first ad, but also played up his home state roots. Rep. Bill Enyart (D-Ill.) plays up the work he's done for his district in a spot shot along the banks of the Mississippi River. In his first ad of the cycle, Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) mentions several Democratic-backed proposals he supports, including same-sex marriage.

Perhaps the Democrat coming closest to Gallego's approach is Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), who barely won his seat two years ago, and has been playing up his supposed willingness to work with both parties in several ads. In one spot where he's seen jogging, Murphy talks about how he opposes congressional pay raises, supported bills to withhold congressional pay during budget impasses and doesn't use the House Gym.

Gallego faces Republican Will Hurd, a former CIA operative, in the Lone Star State's most closely-watched House race. Whoever wins will represent the 23rd Congressional District of Texas, a sprawling region that stretches from San Antonio's western suburbs to the eastern outskirts of El Paso and includes the longest stretch of U.S.-Mexico border in any district. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the district in 2012 by 3 percentage points; Sen. Ted Cruz (R) won it by 6 percent. Gallego won by 5 points. The seat has switched parties five times in the past 20 years -- one of the few left that has flip-flopped so frequently.

With his opening message, Gallego is clearly looking to short-circuit yet another switch.