When running for election, it is always better to have a vote cast for you because balloters like what you stand for, not because they don't like the other guy. Candidates who largely court and depend upon a negative vote to win often lose.

Take former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, our current secretary of state. In 2004, more people who voted for Kerry said in exit polls that they cast their ballots against his Republican opponent, President George W. Bush, than for Kerry, then a Massachusetts senator.

Kerry lost.

But rather than heed that cautionary lesson, many Republican candidates in this year's midterm elections are carelessly following the Kerry blueprint. Rather than tell voters how good they are and how effectively they will represent them, they trumpet President Obama's flaws and tie their Democratic opponents to the president, his policies and his alleged failures — healthcare for one, conduct of foreign policy for another.


They believe that because Obama's job-approval ratings have been mired in the low 40s, voters will naturally reject fellow Democrats on the ballot. There's good reason to put some stock in that belief. The party of an unpopular president usually loses congressional seats in midterm elections. It happened to Obama in 2010, and to Bush in 2006. On paper, the GOP should be walking away with this election. But they are not.

The anti-Obama strategy might work for Republicans in some races. But it might not in others, especially in very tight races where control of the U.S. Senate is at stake. Republicans have little room for error to become the majority party.

In battleground Senate states such as Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Alaska and Iowa, where Democrats are running for reelection or defending open seats previously theirs, polls show one week from the voting that the outcomes can go either way. Republicans have worked hard to make Obama the key issue whether by pointing out how often their opponents voted in favor of the president's policies or how the Democrat would march in lockstep with him if sent to Washington.

In a recent North Carolina TV ad aired by Republican challenger Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Poll: Biden, Trump locked in neck-and-neck battle for North Carolina GOP senator: Russia should be labeled state sponsor of terrorism if intelligence is accurate MORE against Democratic Sen. Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganThe Hill's Campaign Report: North Carolina emerges as key battleground for Senate control Tillis wins North Carolina Senate primary Coronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 MORE, Obama's picture appears before that of Hagan pointing out that Obama once referred to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a "J-V team."

Then, with Obama and Hagan pictured side by side, the ad says, “While the ISIS threat grew, Obama kept waiting, and Kay Hagan kept silent."

Another Tillis ad charged, "Kay Hagan is 96 percent for Obama, 100 percent for herself."

Republican ads with similar themes and messages have aired in most of the Senate battleground states.

This is not to say that all Republicans ads are negative against Obama and their opponents. But various studies show that in most battleground Senate races this year, the numbers of ads being aired by both parties are overwhelmingly negative, and short on positive messages that say what the candidates stand for and will do once they are in Washington.

Republicans have not effectively countered Obama's criticism that they stand for nothing other than to say "no" to him. When you don't have a clear positive message, you are prone to letting the other guys define you, as Obama has.

Democrats in recent years are much better at defining what they are for, making their message more personal and putting Republicans on the defensive. They are for a higher minimum wage and better pay for women, higher taxes on the wealthy, lower college costs, more environmental protection, expanded abortion rights, better healthcare. Agree or disagree, these are clear messages, easy to understand and directed at individuals.

The Republican message is more abstract, less personal and nuanced. They are for a stronger economy, limited government and less deficit spending, lower taxes for all, limited business regulation, tighter immigration restrictions and stronger national defense. But while these issues are still pushed in some GOP campaigns, Obama remains the big target.

Back 20 years, in the 1994 midterm elections, Democrat Bill Clinton was president and at low-40s job approval. Rather than run directly against Clinton, congressional Republicans designed a detailed plan — the "Contract with America" — to win back control of the House of Representatives, run by Democrats for the previous 40 years. They campaigned on it, stuck to it and won.

It included such issues as welfare reform, balanced budgets, tax cuts for families, term limits for Congress, tougher law enforcement against violent crime, higher earning limits for Social Security recipients and less business regulation to create jobs. It was specific, it was clear and it was positive.

To be sure, there was some anti-Clinton rhetoric in 1994, but it did not dominate like the Obama bashing the GOP is counting on to propel them to a Senate majority this year. They could luck out. But if they fall short, they will have little but lack of a positive strategy to blame.

Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and the Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University.