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Why State Lawmakers Are an Opposition Researcher's Dream

Tillis has a record and Democrats know it. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Think being a Washington politician gets a bum rap? It's not so easy being a politician from Phoenix, Springfield, Des Moines, Lincoln or Raleigh, either. Just ask Arizona Speaker Andy Tobin, Illinois state Rep. Mike Bost, Iowa House Rep. Pat Murphy, Nebraska state Sen. Brad Ashford or North Carolina Speaker Thom Tillis.

With extensive voting records, state legislators hoping to capture national offices have seen their records used against them in close races, as their opponents use their votes to paint them with the same brush any incumbent is accustomed to.

The two speakers, Tillis and Tobin, have been targeted especially hard.

“Andy Tobin’s actions are very much what’s being used against him,” said Barbara Lubin, the communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party. Democrats have zeroed in on the Arizona Legislature's passage of SB 1062, a measure that would have exempted businesses from anti-discrimination protections on the basis of religious grounds.

It was passed in February and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill after widespread criticism, including concerns over losing the 2015 Super Bowl. Lubin argues that the legislature rushed the bill through and “You can’t do that without the blessing of the speaker.”

In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and her supporters have pointed to Tillis' position to argue that he has been at the forefront of education cuts, which has been a major issue in the race and the focus of  attack ads.

“When I’m asked who’s responsible for these education cuts,” said Megan, a teacher in one of the videos. “It’s Thom Tillis and his legislature.”  

And it's not just their records that could be used against them. Sometimes candidates just have to raise their voice.  

In Iowa, Murphy — the Democrat hoping to replace the incumbent and Senate candidate Bruce Braley — was caught yelling from a podium in Des Moines. The National Republican Congressional Committee picked up on that in an ad used to bolster Murphy's GOP opponent, Rod Blum.  

"Congress has enough yellers and screamers," the narrator in one ad says before a video of Murphy yelling and pointing is played. "When Pat Murphy isn't on a screaming tirade, he's on a spending tirade, with your money." Murphy is also a former state speaker, so even if he hadn't provided the yelling incident, he has a record — like Tillis and Tobin — that opponents could pick over.  

In Illinois, Bost has been singled out over his tirade on the statehouse floor, in which he throws papers and yells, providing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee with material. "Mike Bost would make Washington worse," one narrator says.  

Illinois Republicans are skeptical the strategy will work.  

"They’ve tried to make a big deal over Bost’s frustration with the state legislature in Springfield and they’ve used that in a couple of ads where he really took the leaders in Springfield to task," said Andrew Welhouse, spokesman for the Illinois GOP. "I think what they found is that that didn’t resonate with people the way that they thought it would."  

There are currently 255 House and Senate members who once served in their state legislatures, including some of the incumbents hoping to fend off these state lawmaker challengers.  

Some of these sorts of attacks can work out in peculiar ways.  

Ashford, who is running against GOP Rep. Lee Terry, has been taking heat from national Republicans for supporting a law that cut prison sentences for inmates with good behavior. One of those inmates, Nikko Jenkins, was in prison on robbery and assault charges. After he was released, he murdered four people, charges of which he was convicted in April.  

Last week, Terry received an unwelcome endorsement during a hearing to examine Jenkins' competency, which had attracted national attention, perhaps largely due to the attack ad.  

"Vote Lee Terry, guys," Jenkins yelled, "greatest Republican ever."  

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