Need a campaign ad? Don't look in mirror

Sometimes a candidate’s best messenger is anybody but themselves.

From Louisiana’s critical Senate race to a Florida House race, candidates are featuring their moms, dads, grandmothers, wives and kids, their patients, the constituents they’ve helped, their old drill sergeants, and even a celebrity or two in their campaign ads.

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Using surrogates in campaign ads is a tried and true tactic, and it’s become particularly potent in the age of nonstop nastiness and wall-to-wall attack ads ushered in by the rise of super-PACs.

An October 2013 Pew survey put the public's trust in government at just 19 percent. Congress’ approval rating is even lower -- at 11 percent in an Allstate/National Journal poll out late last month. 

Like a used car salesman that’s sold too many jalopies, candidates for public office these days aren't always the easiest to trust, and voters may not end up buying what they’re selling unless they have someone vouch for them. 

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that’s why surrogates can be so useful. 

“For one thing, it humanizes them. Sad to say, many of these relatives and other surrogates have more credibility than the candidate, who’s automatically suspect simply because he or she’s a politician,” said Sabato. 

One lawmaker looking to shake off the perception that he's the quintessential politician, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has used surrogates in his campaign ads as he stares down the toughest reelection fight of his career. Taking advantage of controversy surrounding a racist tweet sent by a progressive group about his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, McConnell featured her decrying the tweet in an ad.

That ad’s advantage was threefold: Chao could be a more effective critic of “far-left special interests” than McConnell, who lashes out at Democrats all the time; she could humanize her notoriously prickly husband; and she could make a pitch to female voters, an important voting bloc in the race.

The Kentucky Senate race has been populated with surrogates. McConnell’s primary challenger, Matt Bevin, featured a number of his nine-children brood in an ad where one daughter accuses McConnell of “spreading lies” about her father.

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes hasn’t launched any ads yet, but her grandma Elsie — an adorable, sassy surrogate on the trail already — will likely make an appearance in one or two, like she did during Grimes’ run for Kentucky secretary of State and in her campaign kickoff video

Pete Aguilar, a Democrat running for Rep. Gary Miller’s (R-Fla.) seat, started running an ad this week that echoed that strategy, featuring both of his grandmothers riffing back and forth about his policy positions.

Family abound in other campaign ads this cycle, too.  Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) used his wife in a particularly powerful ad where she narrates his commitment to his late father’s values and Alaska.

“I love my husband, but I’m prouder still of him as a father, and what he learned from his own,” she says at the end of the ad, an allusion to the late Rep. Nick Begich (D-Alaska), who was killed in a plane crash in 1972. 

While families humanize, other surrogates can hit a policy or voting bloc sweet spot that candidates may not be best able to do on their own.

In Arkansas’ Senate race, Rep. Tom Cotton, the Republican candidate, took advantage of Sen. Mark Pryor’s (D) poorly-worded comments that Cotton gives off a “sense of entitlement” because of his military service in an ad that featured his former drill sergeant shouting commands at him.

David Ray, Cotton’s spokesman, said the congressman came up with the idea on his own as a good way to drive home the message without being too overt.

“It accomplishes a lot of different things. It shows a side of Tom that’s a little more lighthearted, it reinforces the fact that he served his country in the U.S. Army, and it reminds voters of the fact that Senator Pryor has inexplicably chosen to attack Tom’s military service,” said Ray.

And in Arkansas, where 20 different groups have aired $8.5 million in ads already, Ray said the campaign’s quirky spot stood out from the noise.

Monica Wehby, the pediatric neurosurgeon running for the GOP nomination in Oregon’s Senate race, caught national attention last week with an ad that featured a surrogate outside of her family — a former patient, who tearfully spoke of Wehby’s efforts to save the life of her infant daughter.

That ad pitched Wehby to women and hinted at her personally anti-abortion views without being overt or bringing up her pro-abortion rights policy beliefs while also introducing voters to her background as a physician without a touch of self-promotion.

Sabato said, though, that while such ads can be eye-catching, there’s no evidence surrogate ads have more resonance than your run-of-the-mill attack ad.

“The product standard is that if you put little children and cats in ads, people will pay more attention. I can believe it. Most children are adorable. But who knows whether people are buying what they’re selling?” he said.

Surrogates can backfire, too. Sabato said that an ad out this week from Ben Sasse, a Republican running for Senate in Nebraska, gave him pause because of the words it put in the surrogates’ mouths.

The ad features Sasse’s daughters, 10 and 12, speaking unscripted about their father’s opposition to ObamaCare.

“He does not like ObamaCare. He’s read it and he realizes how bad it is, and he wants to find a way to, um, destroy it and rebuild something that’s successful. He despises it,” says 10-year-old Alex Sasse in the ad.

Sabato said while they’re “cute little girls,” the line about destroying ObamaCare stood out.

“I was stunned, I just thought it was so inappropriate,” he said.

There’s always the chance, too, that a candidate surrogate can be misleading. Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) used one of the stars of the popular reality television show “Duck Dynasty” in one of his ads, which helped catapult him to victory in a special election last year.

Just five months later, McAllister was embroiled in scandal after being caught on tape kissing a staffer that was not his wife. The freshman congressman said this week he won’t run again. 

“It just tells you how much you ought to pay attention to some of these endorsements. How well did the Duck Dynasty star know Vance McAllister?” Sabato asked. “So what is it really worth?