Year of the campaign cheapskate

With voters wanting politicians to cut spending and waste, there's a new refrain on the campaign trail and on the air this cycle: I'm cheap! Elect me!

Already in 2014, candidates have gone to often humorous lengths to show just how frugal they are and how that would translate to their work in Congress should they win election.

“At one time, it did seem like calling somebody cheap was an insult. These days it’s something different,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist.

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A handful of Senate candidates have already used the tactic, with spots from Sen. Mark BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch Alaska group backing independent candidate appears linked to Democrats Sullivan wins Alaska Senate GOP primary MORE (D-Alaska), Minnesota GOP nominee Mike McFadden and failed Senate candidate Rep. Jack KingstonJohon (Jack) Heddens KingstonLobbying world Disagreements are a part of our process Lobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests MORE (R-Ga.) touting their spendthrift ways over joking complaints by their family members.

“Most people live frugal lives either because they choose to, or because they want to. And so I think frugality is a virtue that is valued in society,” said Mackowiak.

Of the problems named by Americans as the “most important” ones facing the nation in a recent Gallup survey, the federal debt and deficit ranked third, named by more Americans as a top issue than the gap between the rich and poor, wages and taxes.

But touting budget cuts implemented or waste eliminated as a previous officeholder only goes so far to make that point. Those details are unspecific and hard to grasp in a concrete way, said Democratic ad maker Larry Grisolano.

“That’s a really hard thing to follow,” he said of talk of official budgeting facts and figures. “Whereas if you make an appeal that says, hey, here’s a person whose instincts are very cheap and who really economizes at every turn, that’s something that voters can relate to.”

That’s what Kingston tried to relay during his failed Senate primary battle with an ad showing his four kids humorously complaining of their father’s frugality.

“Our dad is Jack Kingston. He really is cheap, and it’s not just the car he drives,” his daughter Betsy says at the opening of the ad.

Kingston is seen in front of a beat-up old station wagon, as the rest of the kids go on to share other details of their father’s frugal lifestyle, like the fact their “tupperware” containers are all used food containers, and they wear hole-riddled hand-me-downs.

“You know, for dad, it’s about personal responsibility, and respecting the value of a dollar. He’ll be the same way in the Senate,” his kids say at the end of the ad.

Kingston’s ad ultimately didn’t help him though and he lost in the runoff to businessman David Perdue. Some GOP strategists said that ad especially didn’t resonate in the way Kingston needed it to.

The potency of other ads, however, comes from more than just putting a human face to an abstract concept.

“It’s a great way to introduce a candidate’s family,” Mackowiak noted.

Using candidates’ families in ads can have great risks but great rewards. There’s the chance they might seem too politicized by pitching their father’s policy positions, but if they’re touting something they know better than anyone else, they’re a credible messenger.

In Begich’s (D) newest television ad, his wife and mother go back and forth over whether Begich is “cheap” or “frugal.”

“We can tell you Mark’s always been frugal,” his mother says, followed by his wife, in a stage-whisper: “She means cheap.”

They both go on to share how, in both his personal and professional life, he’s worked to pinch pennies and cut waste. The ad is capped by a shot of Begich looking ever the beleaguered husband, caught between bickering wife and mother, as he delivers his approval disclaimer.

The ads also help to humanize the candidates and introduce them as an Everyman, the kind of guy whose kids complain about the fact that their dad won’t buy a new car even though he so desperately needs one, or the kind of guy whose wife and mother lovingly rib him for his strange thriftiness.

And that, Mackowiak says, serves to “play against the stereotype — of a wealthy guy, a successful businessman. You may not think somebody like that would be frugal.”

That was likely the reasoning behind one of McFadden’s first ads that featured his son Conor touting his father’s cheapness.

McFadden has made tackling the national debt a priority in his uphill campaign against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). The GOP nominee is also the CEO of an investment bank and has been attacked as an out-of-touch millionaire.

But in his ad, Conor tells viewers how, instead of paying $100 once to get his stitches removed, his dad “grabbed the scissors and took 'em out himself.”

“Trust me. Nothing will stop dad from trying to take out ObamaCare,” Conor says at the end of the ad. His father adds, “send me to Washington, and give me some scissors.”

Grisolano noted, however, there’s some risk that candidates like McFadden touting their personal frugality will ring hollow.

“Voters have a good way of figuring out the truth. If these claims to personal budget consciousness are really authentic and true, then I think they’re going to be resonant with people,” the Democratic ad maker said. “But if it seems kind of made up or doesn’t square with what people think about the person’s character or style, I think it’s not guaranteed to work.”

That was the case with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney who, try as he might, couldn’t shake the perception of him as an out-of-touch rich businessman. So when a New York Times piece outlining his “thrifty habits” came out — right as Romney was struggling to explain making a $10,000 bet during a debate — it was met with ridicule and disbelief.

That’s why it’s imperative, Mackowiak and Grisolano said, to back up the ads on air with actions on the ground.

Begich spokesman Max Croes insisted his boss does just that. He recounted how a young supporter told the senator he liked his plaid shirt at a recent campaign stop — which Begich had bought not from a high-end retailer but from Fred Meyer, a big-box store that’s prolific in Alaska.

“So the student goes, ‘Where’d you get that shirt?’” Croes said.

“And the senator goes, ‘Freddy’s! You can get it at Freddy’s.’”

“It’s something that both reflects who Mark Begich is as a person, but also reflects his record,” Croes added.