Some Republicans Try Out a New Campaign Theme: Bipartisanship
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Representative Bobby Schilling, an Illinois Republican, is highlighting his work with a Democratic congressman from Iowa.
Richard E. Mourdock of Indiana, whose Senate campaign has been most notable for his derision of legislative compromise as feckless, now says he would “work with anyone.”
While out and about on the campaign trail, Representative Bobby Schilling, Republican of Illinois, talks so much about all the great things he has done with Representative Dave Loebsack, a Democrat from nearby Iowa, that one would think the two were related.
Partisan obstreperousness, the force that propelled Congressional Republicans to widespread victory in 2010, is suddenly for many of them as out of style as monocles. In campaign advertisements, some lawmakers who once dug in against Democrats now promote the wonders of bipartisanship. And legislatively, Republicans in tough races are seeking to soften their edges by moderating their votes, tossing their teacups and otherwise projecting a conciliatory image to voters.
The Republican quest for bipartisanship — at least nominally — is not hard to explain. ANew York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week and released this weekend showed that 44 percent of Americans see Republicans at fault for gridlock in Washington, compared with 29 percent who blame President Obama and the Democrats. Nineteen percent said both were to blame. That imbalance has persisted at almost exactly those proportions since last year.
Democrats have noted Republicans’ efforts to present themselves as agreeable, and say they will try to beat them back.
“They’re going to redefine, and we are going to remind. That’s what this is about,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “They were swept in on a Tea Party tsunami. The wave has receded, and they are left high and dry with their voting records.”
With less than two months until Election Day, some House races may turn on whether the incumbent Republicans can shake the Tea Party label that Democrats are eager to press to them like flypaper.
Representative Nan Hayworth, a Republican freshman from New York, has taken to pointing out that she has voted for bills supported by Mr. Obama “a third of the time.” As she zoomed through the Rotunda the other day in her signature spike heels, on her way to visit with Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Republican nominee for vice president, Ms. Hayworth was asked if she was shifting to the center.
“Nope,” she said, never breaking stride. “I’ve been doing that from the start.”
Ms. Hayworth has a point: the conservative Club for Growth ranked her as the 172nd most conservative House Republican, about in the middle of the pack. But House Majority PAC, a Democratic political action committee, started an advertising campaign on Wednesday explicitly tying her to the Tea Party.
“Some tea parties are nice,” the advertisement’s narrator says. “But Nan Hayworth’s Washington Tea Party would roll back decades of progress for women.”
On election night in 2010, as Tea Party conservatives were being swept into office, Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland, a 10-term Republican, declared: “The Tea Party came to where I was. I’ve always been there.”
But then came Maryland’s redistricting and an influx of Democratic voters to Mr. Bartlett’s once-reliable Republican corner of the state. Now much of his advertising emphasizes his support for higher education, including contributions to college funds out of his own pocket.
“Roscoe has never been afraid to buck his own party,” a radio ad intones. “Roscoe Bartlett, an independent voice for Maryland.”
Mr. Mourdock, who defeated the longtime Senator Richard G. Lugar in the Republican primary in Indiana, in part by casting Mr. Lugar’s willingness to reach across the aisle as a personality flaw, is now working overtime to soften that position. In one of his campaign’s advertisements, the Indiana lieutenant governor, Becky Skillman, says Mr. Mourdock will “work with Republicans and Democrats.”
This message “has great appeal among independent voters,” said Brose McVey, Mr. Mourdock’s deputy campaign manager.
“Hoosier voters aren’t buying what Mr. Mourdock is selling,” said Representative Joe Donnelly, his opponent. “In fact, when asked this week, he could not name one Democrat he would work with if elected to the U.S. Senate.”
For Republicans in particularly tough races, compromise is their central campaign theme. Representative Robert Dold of Illinois has made three ads that emphasize his independence. “I took on my own party to support funding for Metra,” he says in one, referring to a commuter rail system.
At least four Republicans have drafted their mothers to help smooth their rough edges. Representative Rick Berg of North Dakota, for instance, looks as if he has just finished a pancake breakfast prepared by his mother in one soft-spoken testament by her.
“I’m Rick Berg.” “And Rick’s mom.” “And we approve this message.”
Some of the moderation has extended to legislation. Several Republican lawmakers, like Representative Kristi Noem of South Dakota, made the unusual choice of signing a petition sponsored by Democrats to force a vote on the House Agriculture Committee’sfarm bill.
Last week, Representative Scott Rigell of Virginia voted against a short-term budget agreement, not because it cut too little, as some Republicans argued, but because it did not provide money for work in his district on two aircraft carriers.
Even the most ardent conservatives appear to be trying to tone down their image. Last week, the Republican Study Committee, a group of right-leaning House members who often vote against their leadership’s spending measures as being too expansive, held a “poverty summit” meeting with black and Hispanic pastors to hear ideas about easing poverty — not the kind of policy initiative the group is known for.
Representative Steve Southerland II of Florida, a Tea Party freshman, introduced himself there as “an individual whose heart hurts because individuals do not have the opportunity to improve their plight.” (The group’s proposed budget seeks to cut over $2 trillion from programs for the poor over six years.)
Some Democrats in Republican-leaning states are playing the same game. In one ad, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, a Democrat running for the Senate, is standing in a farm field saying she is not the candidate for voters looking for a partisan on either side. She also trumpets her support for the proposed Keystone pipeline expansion, which many Democrats oppose.
Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri has her own new advertisement in which she boasts about her rating as the senator considered dead center in the divided Senate, 50th out of 100.
For candidates with long political histories, the record can be inconvenient. During a recent debate, George Allen, the Republican nominee for a Senate seat from Virginia, talked about working with Hillary Rodham Clinton when he was previously in the Senate. His opponent, Tim Kaine, pointed out that Mr. Allen was then fond of saying, “I’d rather be drinking beer with George Bush than nibbling cheese and drinking wine with Hillary Clinton at her mansion.”
For every moment of conciliation that Mr. Allen seeks to highlight, there are remarks like those he made during the 1994 Virginia Republican Convention, when he said of Democrats, “Let’s enjoy knocking their soft teeth down their whining throats.”