Vulnerable Senate candidates get passes on ideological issues

In the fiercely competitive battle for the upper chamber, vulnerable candidates from both sides of the aisle have been given leeway on some of the issues their parties are using in other races to attack opponents.

Most recently, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) launched an ad targeting Rep. Jeff Flake (R), running for Senate in Arizona, for his record on women’s issues, including Flake’s two votes to defund Planned Parenthood, and for co-sponsoring a bill that would redefine rape as “forcible rape.”

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But Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democrat running for Senate in Indiana, has the same voting record as Flake on those bills.

Donnelly was one of 10 Democrats to vote in favor of the two bills that would defund Planned Parenthood. And he signed on as one of 11 co-sponsors of a bill that would have would have cut off federal aid for abortion-related services for statutory rape and incest. The measure also contained a provision to redefine rape, but his campaign says he opposed that part of the legislation, which was eventually removed from the bill.

Flake’s campaign also has said the lawmaker signed on to that bill while disagreeing with the rape language because he knew the final version of the legislation would be different from the original.

But Donnelly’s similar record to Flake’s was not a barrier to Democrats using the votes as a weapon in the Arizona contest.

The DSCC has spent more than $1.3 million against Donnelly’s GOP opponent, Richard Mourdock, and its willingness to ignore Donnelly’s record could be a reflection of political necessity: He’s running against a far-right candidate in a red-leaning state where Mitt Romney leads by double digits in the most recent poll.

And Republicans are using the same playbook.

The Montana Republican Party ran an ad early in the cycle in support of Rep. Denny Rehberg’s (R) Senate bid that touted his opposition to Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget as evidence of his independence. The Ryan budget is a sacred cow for most Republicans nationwide but a potential difficulty for Rehberg, running in a tight race against Sen. Jon Tester (D).

The state party, which reports say didn’t have enough in the bank alone to back the buy, had its coffers boosted by a $540,000 cash infusion from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Federal Election Commission records show. The party does not have to report a breakdown of how it spent the NRSC money, but some of the funds likely went to the ad buy.

Ideological inconsistency in partisan attacks has everything to do with the long game: The parties are working to gain or retain a majority, and to do so, they’ll have to make compromises.

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said the range of partisan sensibilities crisscrossing the U.S. makes it impossible for a viable Republican candidate in Maine to win in Montana, which means parties might have to attack one candidate but back one of their own on certain issues.

“Parties really want all of their candidates to fit within a consistent narrative, but regional narratives make that pretty much a pipe dream,” he said.

He added that party strategy isn’t likely to matter to voters on the ground in Indiana or Montana, and that they’re more likely to pay attention to local issues and the economy than a breach in ideological consistency.