All politics is local — at least for vulnerable Senate Democrats seeking to survive a tough election year and headwinds from their party leader, President Obama.
In races from Alaska to North Carolina, Democrats are focusing their advertising on locally tailored messages like energy, jobs and manufacturing. Republicans, though, are using their television cash to focus on the national debate, hammering home broad critiques of Mr. Obama and his policies, notably Obamacare.
It’s the reverse of 2006, when Republicans controlled Congress and tried to focus on local issues, and Democrats repeatedly found ways to bring then-President George W. Bush into the conversation.
In the most competitive races Republicans have made criticizing Mr. Obama one of their top ad messages, along with federal spending and deficits, according to Kantar Media’s Elizabeth Wilner, who tracks the ads and who wrote an analysis for the Cook Political Report.
There’s a good reason for trying to nationalize the election and center it on voters’ perceptions of Mr. Obama, said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.
“We don’t have a defining issue,” he said. “What we have is 71 percent of the nation think[ing] the country’s on the wrong track.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to convince voters they don’t need to support Mr. Obama to appreciate what a home-state Democrat can bring to the Senate. In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall has focused his advertising on courting women voters, while in Arkansas, Sen. Mark L. Pryor has focused on Medicare benefits.
Then there are three Democrats from coal- or oil-rich states — Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska and Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who is trying to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky — who have made energy the top issue in their ads.
Mr. McConnell, by contrast, is pushing back against Mrs. Grimes with attacks on Mr. Obama and his signature health care law. Coal and energy sink to the fifth-most-prevalent message in his ad strategy, the Kantar analysis found.
In North Carolina, incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay R. Hagan has spent most of her television ad dollars focusing on the issues of trade, jobs and unemployment as well as manufacturing and construction, according to the analysis. State House Speaker Thom Tillis, meanwhile, has spent most of his ads criticizing Mr. Obama and/or health care.
Mr. Tillis is focusing on those issues because Obamacare is a “defining issue” for the campaign, said Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin.
“A television ad isn’t going to change the fact that Hagan has supported Obama 95 percent of the time over the last six years,” he said. “It won’t change the fact she voted for Obamacare or added trillions to the debt.”
But Mr. Tillis is hamstrung to a certain extent in such attempts to frame the race in a national lens because, as speaker of the state legislature, he owns everything his party has done in the recently completed session — including passing a budget with education funding levels some see as inadequate, said Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant who lives in the state.
“Kay Hagan is trying to localize this race as much as she can, and Republicans in North Carolina are trying to nationalize the race,” Mr. Mills said.
Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Republicans can net the six seats they need to win control of the Senate even without having to tread on Mr. Obama’s territory, since there are enough Democrat-held seats up for election in states won by 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney to swing the chamber.
“They’re just hoping that Obama sort of drags down the candidates, so their prescription is [to] nationalize those races and talk about conservative ideology in states that are conservative, like Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska,” Mr. Kondik said.