While crises mount abroad and at home, some candidates this year are betting that a big issue for voters will be free gym use and subsidized haircuts on Capitol Hill.
Hoping to tap some of the virulent anti-Washington rage coursing through the electorate, Democratic candidates in Republican-leaning House districts have proposed nearly identical plans to revoke a slew of Capitol Hill perks, such as the taxpayer-funded gym, salon and barbershop services for lawmakers.
They have vowed to stop giving Congress members cars that are leased or rented at taxpayer expense, health care benefits not available to the general public and taxpayer-funded junkets overseas.
Although Republicans dismissed these pledges as gimmicks, campaign strategists say the tactic just might work.
“Members of Congress in both parties are viewed as incompetent and beneficiaries of special favors. That’s a bad combination,” said Gregory R. Valliere, chief political strategist at the independent Potomac Research Group in Washington. “Accordingly, many candidates will campaign against special perks, and it might make a difference for several Democrats running in close races.”
Mr. Valliere said the surprise primary defeat last month of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican ousted in part because his constituents thought he had become too much of a Washington insider, was a wake-up call for lawmakers from both parties. They witnessed the risk of being perceived by voters as “not one of us,” he said.
The anti-Washington anger among voters crosses party lines and taints the entire federal government. A Gallup poll this week found that Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the federal government had plummeted to new lows of 30 percent for the Supreme Court, 29 percent for the presidency and 7 percent for Congress.
The idea that Congress benefits from special perks got new life again this week when it was discovered that the House Ethics Committee quietly altered the reporting requirement for members who take trips abroad financed by private groups. Lawmakers at first said the change was technical, but House Ethics Committee Chairman Michael K. Conaway, Texas Republican, on Thursday announced plans to go back to the original standard.
The National Republican Congressional Committee slammed the Democrats’ attacks not because they would nix perks but because the proposals were not original. The committee said the candidates “copy and paste this ‘perks’ idea” from the campaign machine of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to questions about the copycat attacks.
Most of the Democrats engaged in the war on perks are running in fiercely competitive races for open House seats.
Documentary filmmaker Aaron Woolf, a Democrat running in a swing district in upstate New York’s Thousand Islands region, targeted the barbershop and salon and pledged to withhold pay from lawmakers if they don’t pass a budget — an idea more likely to draw applause at a tea party rally than a Democratic fundraising dinner.
He also proposed elimination of free vehicles for lawmakers, health care subsidies and travel under the “charter jet” loophole that allows Congress members to use campaign funds to upgrade privately funded flights to first class.
Mr. Woolf is battling Republican Elise Stefanik to replace retiring three-term Rep. William L. Owens, a Democrat.
Democrat Patrick Henry Hays, running in a Republican-leaning district around Little Rock, Arkansas, had the same list of perks. He also proposes a hold on pay raises for lawmakers until they balance the budget.
Mr. Hays, a former mayor of North Little Rock, is vying with Republican banker French Hill for the seat left open by Rep. Tim Griffin, a Republican who is running for lieutenant governor.
Aimee Belgard, a Democrat running in a Republican-leaning district in New Jersey proposed a ban on taxpayer-funded campaign-style mailers to constituents. She is competing with Republican Tom MacArthur, a former town mayor, to succeed retiring Rep. Jon Runyan, a Republican.
A pair of Democrats used the perk issue to take on Republican incumbents.
County lawmaker Martha Robertson rolled out the same list of perks — first-class airfare, mailers, gym access, luxury cars — in her battle against her Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Reed, in upstate New York.
But Michael Wager, a Democrat challenging Republican Rep. David P. Joyce in a solid red Ohio district, broke with the pack to give his list a more liberal flavor.
Mr. Wager added a prohibition on pay increases for congressional lawmakers until they raise the federal minimum wage. He also proposed replacing “generous” congressional pensions with ordinary Social Security benefits for lawmakers.