At Cross Purposes?

Kerry’s Blitz May Complicate Senate Efforts

Posted May 3, 2004 at 5:47pm

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s (D) decision to include Colorado and Louisiana in his latest national ad blitz was met with mixed reactions by the Senate candidates running in those two crucial open-seat races.

Even as national Democrats lauded the decision by the party’s presumptive presidential nominee to expand the list of so-called battleground states, some Senate strategists worried that it could cloud the message of their downballot candidates.

“The problem becomes that if you have another race going on statewide talking about issues different than you are talking about,” said Scott Arceneaux, campaign manager for Rep. Chris John, one of three Democrats seeking to replace retiring Louisiana Sen. John Breaux (D). “It complicates the issue and the message because you have extra clutter to break through.”

Other Democratic strategists jumped to Kerry’s defense, arguing that his decision to play in nontraditional targets is heartening for Senate candidates.

“Democrats in those states have been so used to being abandoned children that it is helpful,” said media consultant Anita Dunn. “They have been running without air cover for so long.”

The debate over Kerry’s targeting decision reflects a larger divide between the aspirations of the Democratic presidential nominee and its practical effect on downballot races. Given the Southern tilt of the Senate playing field —five Southern Democratic Senators are retiring in 2004 — some party strategists worry that being tied too closely to Kerry could be disastrous to their chances of retaking the Senate.

Of the 10 Senate races seen as the most competitive this year, only one will be in a definite presidential battleground state — Florida. Democrats running in South Carolina, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Alaska have already begun to subtly but decisively distance themselves from some of Kerry’s issue positions.

Louisiana and Colorado are seen as teetering on the edge of competitiveness in the presidential contest, with Republicans given the early edge.

President Bush won Louisiana by 8 points and Colorado by 9 points in 2000, but Democrats point out that in 1996 then-President Bill Clinton carried Louisiana and lost Colorado by just 2 points.

In Colorado, state Attorney General Ken Salazar is the odds-on Democratic nominee in the Senate race; Republicans will host an August primary between former Rep. Bob Schaffer and beer-brewing mogul Pete Coors. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) announced his retirement on March 3.

In Louisiana, John along with State Treasurer John Kennedy (D), state Sen. Arthur Morrell (D) and Rep. David Vitter (R) are running for the open Senate seat.

The Bush campaign is not advertising in either state at this point.

Despite the conservative nature of both states, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse predicted that Kerry’s background would fit well with the Senate candidates’ messages.

“Kerry advertising in these states with images of his service to the country in Vietnam is a fine backdrop in front of which our candidates can run,” he said.

Arceneaux added that the Democratic base in Louisiana would likely be galvanized if Kerry targets the state. “If Democrats are doing well up and down the ballot it helps us,” he said.

The new ad campaign centers on Kerry’s Vietnam service and the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts he was awarded during the war.

While this ad is unlikely to steer voters away from the eventual Democratic Senate nominee, if Kerry continues to target Colorado and Louisiana through November it may aid Republican attempts to hang the Massachusetts Senator’s more liberal positions around the neck of downballot Democrats.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen previewed that approach Monday, arguing that a strong Kerry presence in Colorado would highlight issues unfavorable to Salazar’s candidacy.

“You don’t campaign in a vacuum,” said Allen. “We are going to tie Kerry’s record on defense to what is going on in Colorado.”

The Centennial State has a large military community; it is home to the Air Force Academy as well as Fort Carson.

“The votes Kerry has taken over the years would be very detrimental to those jobs,” he said.

Mike Stratton, campaign chairman for Salazar, said that even if Bush carries the state, the impact on his candidate will be slight.

“People are really ticket splitters in Colorado,” Stratton said. “There is no reason to think that won’t be the case” this cycle.

Dunn said regardless of whether Kerry ultimately targets Colorado and Louisiana, Republicans in those states will try to link the Democratic nominee with the Senator.

“Republicans spend a huge amount of time trying to make Democratic candidates responsible for every Democratic position under the sun whether the presidential candidate is on the air or not,” she said.

Dunn said Republicans seeking to walk in “lockstep” with Bush as a formula for success should recall the 2002 Louisiana Senate race. While Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) avoided party labels, her Republican opponent cast the race as a chance for voters to elect a Senator who would support Bush 100 percent of the time. Landrieu won a December runoff 52 percent to 48 percent.