Self-Loathing Lawmakers Running Against U.S. Congress

Television ads promoting Ohio Republican Bill Johnson’s candidacy for the U.S. House refer to his Democratic opponent as “Congressman” Charlie Wilson. It isn’t a compliment.

“I’m running” in the Nov. 6 election because “people like Barack Obama and Congressman Charlie Wilson spend too much and tax too much,” a casually dressed Johnson says in a spot airing in eastern Ohio. A narrator says Johnson is “fighting for change,” encouraging viewers to “join the fight.”

Here’s the catch: Wilson isn’t the incumbent, Johnson is. Johnson unseated Wilson in 2010, when Republicans won a House majority, and is running for re-election this year. Still, Johnson’s ads portray him as the outsider and Wilson as the insider. Their rematch may be among the nation’s most competitive House races.

Johnson’s ads underscore how some U.S. lawmakers are seeking re-election by campaigning against Congress, which had a 13 percent approval rating in a Gallup survey taken Sept. 6-9 -- the worst showing for Congress this late in an election year and near the all-time low of 10 percent in February and August. Six percent of respondents to a Gallup survey in June said they had “a great deal” of confidence in Congress, a lower rating than for banks and health-maintenance organizations.

“When the institution has low levels of public approval, running against the institution works to some degree,” Bruce Oppenheimer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, said in an interview.

‘Fix’ Washington

Many lawmakers seeking re-election are eschewing words such as “re-elect” that call attention to their incumbent status, according to a Bloomberg review of dozens of campaign ads compiled by New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising. In the TV spots, the lawmakers dress in casual clothing rather than suits, seeking to connect with voters frustrated with Washington amid a struggling economy.

Many members promise in the campaign ads reviewed by Bloomberg to “fix” Washington or to “fight” for their constituents -- language more befitting of political outsiders than incumbents.

Attacking Congress “is one way of trying to say that ‘I’m in touch with what you want and the institution isn’t in touch with what you want,’” Oppenheimer said.

“You can attract maybe some people who are not otherwise active participants by appealing to the fact that you’re not part of the inside group,” he said.

Seniority Downplayed

J.R. Starrett, a spokesman for Wilson’s campaign, said that Johnson’s ads show he is “ashamed of the work that he’s done in Washington.” Johnson’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Even some longtime legislators are downplaying their seniority. An ad for Iowa Republican Representative Tom Latham refers to his Democratic opponent, Representative Leonard Boswell, as a “longtime congressman,” even though Latham was elected to Congress in 1994, two years before Boswell. They are running against each other after their districts were redrawn.

An ad for Representative Charles W. Boustany, a Louisiana Republican and a former heart surgeon, contrasts “Doctor” Boustany with “politician” Jeff Landry, another Republican Representative seeking the same seat. Boustany was first elected in 2004 and serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Landry, a member of the anti-tax Tea Party Caucus, won his seat in 2010, by beating a former state house speaker.

‘Disingenuous Way’

Campaigning against Congress while serving there is “a rather disingenuous way, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, to be talking about an elected official and the role of government,” Patrick Griffin, a government professor at American University in Washington, said in an interview.

Republican members of Congress may be distancing themselves from Congress more so than Democrats in their re-election bids. That’s partly because they control more House seats, and more voters blame Republicans for legislative logjams in a politically divided government.

Forty-four percent of Americans say Republicans in Congress are more responsible for gridlock, compared to 29 percent who blame President Barack Obama and Democrats, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted Sept. 8-12.

Democratic campaign strategists are seeking to link House Republicans to Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee and 14-year House veteran whose proposals to overhaul government programs including Medicare drew almost unanimous support from his party.

Tea Party

“Republicans wish they didn’t own a Tea Party Republican Congress that’s met with record disapproval,” Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview. “Voters are holding them accountable for an agenda that puts millionaires ahead of the middle class.”

Republican ads link incumbent Democrats to the Democratic-run Congress of 2009-10, attacking Obama administration initiatives including the health-care overhaul that became law and a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions that didn’t. In Ohio, Johnson’s ads link Wilson to Congress and to Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who was House speaker and is now the minority leader.

Fewer House Democrats are in danger this year because so many were defeated in 2010 when Republicans unseated 52 Democrats en route to their biggest House gains in 72 years. Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to regain control, which analysts including Oppenheimer and the Cook Political Report say is unlikely.

Democratic incumbents hoping to capitalize on anti-Washington sentiment include Nick Joe Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who has served in the House for more than 35 years. A commercial for his campaign shows an image of the U.S. Capitol as the ad attacks Republican opponent Rick Snuffer, a state lawmaker, for accepting campaign donations from “Washington politicians” who want to revamp Medicare.

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