Rob Portman is campaigning against heroin in Ohio. Kelly Ayotte is running against absenteeism in New Hampshire. And Mark Kirk is telling Illinois that its hardworking families and heroic vets inspired him to fully recover from his stroke.
Recent ads from these three vulnerable Republican senators are as provincial as they are non-ideological — qualities that reflect a broader GOP strategy to insulate down-ballot candidates from Donald Trump’s extreme unfavorability numbers. Party officials have instructed Republican senators to keep their races focused on local issues by campaigning “as though they are running for sheriff,” the Washington Post reports.
For Portman, the heroin epidemic is an issue ideally suited to the sheriff strategy: a genuine social crisis with special resonance in Ohio that the senator successfully co-sponsored bipartisan legislation to address.
"Working together with Democrats and Republicans, I passed legislation to help break the grip of addiction," Portman says in an ad called "Wildfire," one of three new spots championing his leadership on the opiate crisis. "By investing in prevention, treatment, and recovery, empowering law enforcement, and stopping the over-prescribing of painkillers, we can turn the tide."
Donald Trump will doubtlessly be spending significant time in Portman’s backyard this fall, as he tries to make Ohio a red state again. But the senator has expressed little enthusiasm for campaigning with the GOP nominee.
“I’m going to have my own campaign out there and do my own thing,” Portman told the Post earlier this month. “So I don’t know that that’ll happen. But if he wants to help, that’s fine.”
Kelly Ayotte — who has pledged to “support” Donald Trump while refusing to “endorse” him — struck a similar note when asked about whether she’d like to see the Donald stumping for her in the Granite State.
“I have one priority and that’s campaigning for myself,” the New Hampshire senator said.
Ayotte’s most recent ad is laser-focused on her Democratic opponent Maggie Hassan, attacking the sitting governor on the fiercely non-ideological grounds of absenteeism. Hassan and her Democratic supporters have criticized Ayotte for refusing to give President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a hearing, scolding her on social media with the hashtag #DoYourJob. Ayotte’s new spot rebutts that critique without actually defending the merits of her position on Merrick Garland’s nomination. Instead of engaging Hassan in a debate on a matter of national concern, Ayotte harangues her for neglecting her local responsibilities.
The response from Team Hassan reflects her campaign’s diametrically divergent strategy: While Ayotte tries to keep the race focused on the local and nonpartisan, Hassan just wants to talk about Donald Trump and the Senate’s Supreme Court blockade.
“Kelly Ayotte’s hypocritical and misleading attacks won’t fool Granite Staters,” Hassan spokesperson Aaron Jacobs told WMUR. “[She’s] taking on increasing criticism for her support for Donald Trump and her refusal to do her job by obstructing the Supreme Court confirmation process.”
Mark Kirk’s new ad is the most rigorously apolitical in the litter. The vulnerable Illinois Republican uses his 60-second spot to tell the story of his struggle to regain the full use of his legs after a stroke he suffered in 2012. Shots of Kirk undergoing physical therapy culminate in footage of him mounting the Capitol steps for the first time since his calamity — and being embraced at the top by a bipartisan contingent of his colleagues. To the extent that political issues enter the frame, they are kept meticulously vague.
“As I learned to walk and climb again, I thought of Illinois families struggling to get by. I thought of our veterans,” Kirk says. “I climbed the steps for everyone facing their own challenges.”
Mark Kirk: pro struggling families, anti your personal challenges. This is markedly less red-blooded stuff than Kirk’s December ad assailing his opponent, Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, for being soft on Syrian war orphans.
Still, the turn toward non-ideological innocuousness isn’t universal. Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey has taken the sheriff strategy more literally than his colleagues — and embraced strains of Trump’s law-and-order ethos in the process.
“When rioters destroyed American cities, Pat Toomey stood strong with police,” a voice-over assures the Keystone State cops in an ad released in late March.
Toomey has called it outrageous for his Democratic opponent Katie McGinty to tie him to Donald Trump. But he’s also shown no qualms about nationalizing their race.
“She can do whatever she’s going to feel she needs to do,” Toomey told Philadelphia radio host Dom Giordano in late April. “But the fact is, she is in lockstep with [Democratic front-runner] Hillary Clinton. She actually agrees with Hillary Clinton and the most liberal wing of the Democrats on everything.”
Still, Toomey paired his anti-rioters spot with an ad touting the bravery of his heterodox position on gun control. This two-step — one message geared toward base turnout, one toward reassuring the fickle middle — is a gambit that Toomey’s colleagues will likely emulate in the coming months. There’s more than one way to run for sheriff.