How to Keep Your Seat 101: Don’t mention that you’re a Democrat

With voters in an anti-incumbent mood and a national headwind against their party, some freshman Democrats are touting themselves as unaffiliated outsiders — and it may help them win reelection.

Running against Washington isn’t easy when you’ve got an office on Capitol Hill. But Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) has effectively positioned herself as a challenger in her race against Republican Mike Kelly.

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One of Dahlkemper’s first TV ads slams Congress and never mentions that she’s an incumbent. “Congress, I call it like I see it because that’s how I was raised,” she says in the ad.

Dahlkemper’s minute-long spot scored particularly well with Republicans in a survey of political insiders Wilson Research Strategies conducted for The Hill.

As part of an ongoing feature called Air Wars, the group e-mails campaign or issue ads to survey participants, who view the ads and rate their effectiveness on several criteria.

Moreover, the survey respondents found it to be a credible ad with a strong message.

“That’s exactly what you have to do,” said Tyler Harber, a consultant with Wilson Research. “It’s a bold move, and I think it could be beneficial for her.

“It’s the only move that any of the Democrats have right now.”

A recent Franklin & Marshall College poll showed Kelly with a slight lead over Dahlkemper among registered voters in the 13th district.

Meanwhile, the Air Wars survey found that contrast ads — also known as negative ads — remain effective despite polls showing voters are frustrated with political bickering.

“The only reason we still run them is they work time after time,” Harber said.

In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Republican challenger, Carly Fiorina, used her first TV ad of the general election to accuse the Democrat of “arrogance.”

The ad incorporated footage from a Senate hearing last summer when Boxer insisted Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, call her “senator” and not “ma’am.”

“Carly’s ad is polarizing, but effective,” Harber said. “Republican and independent insiders give the ad top scores across the board, but Democrats score it below average, likely because it is yet another reminder how gaffes like Sen. Boxer’s [have] contributed to their overall vulnerability and negative image nationally.”

Republican challengers are also incorporating memorable gimmicks into their campaign advertising that have made their spots effective.

“I come from a long line of lumberjacks,” Republican Sean Duffy, a House candidate in Wisconsin, says in one of his ads. “My family has a proud heritage of swinging the ax. … [A]nd I’m just as ready to topple the big spending in Washington.”

Duffy is vying against Democrat Julie Lassa to succeed retiring Rep. David Obey (D).

“In a political year like this, gimmicks seem to work,” Harber said. Duffy’s ads “use a number of symbols that people get. I think that these ads are particularly effective because they don’t recycle the same old language found in 90 percent of the ads out there every election.”

Polls in the race show they may be working with voters. Recent surveys show Duffy with a 1- to 13-point lead over Lassa.

Miller and D’Aprile are campaign reporters for The Hill.  They can be found on The Hill’s Ballot Box, located at thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box.