Senate Democrats try to pull focus from Obamacare

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has her Republican opponent right where she wants him geographically — and, therefore, politically.

Thom Tillis is stuck at the state capitol trying to resolve a budget quarrel as speaker of the North Carolina House. It’s a spot that helps Hagan emphasize Tillis’ role leading a Republican-controlled state government that Democrats contend has gone overboard with conservative zeal by restricting access to abortion and the voting booth while cutting corporate taxes and slashing spending on schools.

If Tillis is worried by Hagan’s portrayal, he doesn’t show it. Drinking coffee this past week from a hand-grenade-shaped mug in his no-frills legislative office, he’s got his own message in his campaign to take Hagan’s Senate seat. “Obamacare,” he said, “continues to be a big problem.”

Similar themes are playing out in other crucial Senate races, as voters have four months to decide which party will control the chamber in the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. For Republicans, it’s all about tying Democrats to Obama — especially to a health care law that remains unpopular with many Americans. And for Democrats, the election is about just about anything else, especially if they can steer attention away from Washington and federal matters.

It’s a political strategy that sometimes gives the campaigns an inside-out feel, with veteran senators running as if they were first-timers without a Washington resume to defend or tout.

Democrat Mark Pryor has represented Arkansas in the Senate for two terms, yet one of his TV ads begins with a man saying, “I remember when Pryor was attorney general.” A woman adds that he pursued “scam artists that were ripping off seniors.”

Pryor was state attorney general more than a decade ago, and for just four years, compared to his nearly dozen in the Senate. His harkening back to that time points to his desire to make the election a choice between a famous name in Arkansas state politics and first-term Rep. Tom Cotton, a Republican whom many view as less personable and engaging than Pryor.

The GOP strategy, in return, is straightforward. One TV ad has a young girl spelling Pryor’s name as O-B-A-M-A.

Traditionally emphasized by first-time campaigners, personal biographies are central to several other Democrats’ re-election campaigns. Alaska Sen. Mark Begich has aired a TV ad with footage of him as a boy of about 10, when his father, Rep. Nick Begich, died in a plane crash. “Mark is clearly his father’s son,” says the narrator, Begich’s wife, Deborah Bonito.

And after 18 years in the Senate, Democrat Mary Landrieu is arguably the most accomplished member of her famous Louisiana political family. Still, she has aired an ad in which her father — former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu — says affectionately: “When you have nine children, you’re bound to have one who’s hard-headed.”

Some Democrats might say the same about the GOP’s strategy of bashing “Obamacare” now that the Affordable Care Act is 4 years old. Not Tillis, who says Obama and Hagan exaggerated the extent to which people could keep their doctors and insurance plans. He calls it “the greatest example of a promise not kept.”

He’s getting help with the message from Crossroads GPS, the political group run in part by Republican strategist Karl Rove, which is spending more than $3.5 million on television ads in North Carolina this summer. The group’s latest ad attacking Hagan asks whether voters know she “cast the deciding vote for Obamacare.”

“The idea that this will be anything less than a referendum on Obamacare is wishful thinking,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.

The amount spent on the Hagan-Tillis race — about $17 million and climbing — is among the nation’s highest. It comes in a state that few can rival for political change in recent years, as Republicans ended a century of frustration by winning control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office in 2012.

What came next is a “conservative revolution” that Tillis said he’s proud of leading. Hagan and her fellow Democrats argue the Republicans went too far in a state so closely divided politically that Obama carried it in 2008 and lost it four years later. They believe a bump in teacher pay that Tillis promises lawmakers will enact this summer won’t erase North Carolinians’ memories of the deep cuts to education that Republicans passed last year.

That approach, said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., is Hagan’s best chance to focus November voters’ attention on something other than Obama. Her strategy “is exactly what she should do,” Price said, because Tillis “has got that hung right around his neck.”

Hagan, meanwhile, points to achievements close to home. They include her push to provide medical care to military families exposed to tainted water for decades at Camp Lejeune, the giant Marine Corps base in eastern North Carolina.

“Kay Hagan,” said veteran North Carolina GOP strategist Paul Shumaker, “is hoping the sins of Raleigh are much bigger than the sins of Washington.”

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