WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans are framing the elections in starkly different terms, with GOP strategists painting it as a national referendum on President Barack Obama and the party in power, and Democrats working feverishly to make all politics local.
The outcome will help determine whether Republicans take control of the House, the Senate or both. It also may profoundly affect Obama's agenda for the next two years.
Republicans have every reason to try to nationalize the Nov. 2 election, when voters will fill all 435 House seats, 36 Senate seats and 37 governorships. Democrats succeeded in the elections of 2006 and 2008 by focusing on President George W. Bush's tenure, Republicans' performance in Congress and the Iraq war; the GOP hopes to turn the tables now.
Polls show significant discontent with policies linked to Obama and congressional Democrats, including rising deficits and bank bailouts. The latest AP-GfK survey found that 60 percent of those questioned think the nation is heading in the wrong direction, and 73 percent disapprove of the Democratic-led Congress.
Polls also show significantly higher energy and enthusiasm among conservative voters than liberals.
GOP strategists believe they can sustain this wave and ride it to victory if they can focus voters' attention on overarching complaints against Obama and Democratic lawmakers: government overreach, big spending, Washington intrusion.
"It's going to be a national election," said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, head of the Republican committee overseeing House races. He said Republicans will run on broad themes, such as arguing that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's agenda for health care, energy and labor unions is destroying jobs. [See who is giving money to Sessions.]
Even if Pelosi, D-Calif., isn't well-known to some voters, Sessions said, "I think they're aware that America is under one-party rule."
Democrats are pushing a very different narrative.
The election will be "a choice between two candidates in every congressional district," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Democrats' counterpart to Sessions.
Van Hollen pointed to the May 18 special House election in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Mark Critz surprised pundits by easily defeating Republican Tim Burns. Republicans "made the election all about Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi," Van Hollen said, while Critz stuck to bread-and-butter issues such as job creation and his deep familiarity with the district.
Republicans, stung by the loss, note that Critz rejected Obama's health care and energy initiatives, which most congressional Democrats supported and must defend this fall.
Nonetheless, Democrats see the Critz victory as a blueprint for Election Day. They praise his campaign for reaching out to voters early to learn of their concerns, which shaped follow-up literature and calls.
Democratic officials say they are recruiting thousands of volunteers nationwide for an unusually early and aggressive voter-targeting effort. If local supporters talk to undecided voters about local candidates and concerns, these Democrats say, it can take the edge off Republicans' bid to nationalize the election and focus on Washington.
Of course, Democratic candidates can't avoid the national issues that agitate many voters, such as health care and deficit spending. But they have a better chance to make their case, Van Hollen said, if voters see the nominee as a local person with community ties.
"It's important to engage voters directly and personally, early on, and not just trying to call them up at the last minute," Van Hollen said.
That's what freshman Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., is trying to do in his tough re-election campaign. His votes for Obama's health care bill and cap-and-trade carbon-reduction bill make him a White House favorite, and a top GOP target.
Perriello's latest TV ad mirrors Van Hollen's philosophy: Make a personal, even folksy appeal to voters, and focus on job creation rather than sensitive issues such health care. Perriello mentions "jobs" six times in a humorous 30-second spot that shows him stepping in cow manure and spilling coffee on himself as he promotes new jobs on dairy farms, construction sites, police departments and elsewhere. [See where Perriello's campaign cash comes from.]