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Rinse and Repeat

In American politics, everything old can be made new again, including the themes and attacks in candidates’ campaign ads. Some of the most notable presidential ads of the past few cycles were basically just copies of old ads. For instance, Hillary Clinton’s most famous ad in her 2008 Democratic primary campaign against Barack Obama featured the “3 a.m.” phone call, which emphasized her experience. Well, 24 years earlier, Walter Mondale used a similar ad, featuring a phone, in his primary race against Gary Hart — “Mondale: This president will know what he’s doing, and that’s the difference between Gary Hart and Walter Mondale.”

In 2004, George W. Bush ran a tough ad against John Kerry featuring wolves gathering in a forest, a symbol of terrorist threats in the first post-Sept. 11 presidential election. That ad was similar to a Ronald Reagan commercial from his 1984 campaign, in which a bear symbolizing the Soviet Union threatened an armed American hunter. Both ads have a similar look and feel, and they were both run by Republicans who were trying to make their Democratic opponents look weak.

As we survey the developing House, Senate and governors races, we thought it would be fun — and, hopefully, instructive — to recall some classic ads from past races (we excluded presidential commercials) that contained themes, images and ideas that today’s candidates might consider borrowing. Our list is below, and we hope that after you read it, you’ll e-mail or tweet us with more suggestions, which we’ll list in a follow-up Crystal Ball piece.

“Fast Paced Paul”

Description: Facing an incumbent with a huge war chest, future Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) had to find ways to attract support. He found that witty and memorable ads, such as this one emphasizing the fast-paced, committed approach Wellstone would bring to the U.S. Senate, were a great way to overcome his financial disadvantage. Despite facing long odds, Wellstone won this race in 1990 against Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R). It was the only Senate seat to change party hands that cycle. This was just one of the great ads Wellstone ran in this race; another featured him “Looking for Rudy” in order to get a debate with the incumbent.

Who could use the ad: Rick Weiland (D) of South Dakota is another northern Midwestern Democrat who will likely be outraised and outgunned in his race against ex-Gov. Mike Rounds (R), the likely GOP nominee. It will take something special for Weiland to get the upper hand in the contest, and some clever campaign ads could help his chances. In fact, Weiland has already taken a Wellstone-esque tack by asking Rounds to limit the size of campaign contributions in the race; Rounds, as one would expect, declined.

“The Great Straddler”

Description: Republican challenger Florence Sullivan accused Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of refusing to take stands on big issues and depicted Moynihan riding a fence post. The funny ad didn’t do much for Sullivan — Moynihan won comfortably in this 1982 contest — but the ad’s amusing imagery gets at a common argument about politicians who might be trying to have it both ways.

Who could use it: Embattled Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) will surely try to accuse his potential opponent, ex-Gov. Charlie Crist (D), of being on both sides of many issues, especially because Crist has run for office as a Republican (as governor), an independent (in his 2010 Senate bid) and, now, as a Democrat running for governor again. Maybe Scott could shoot the ad with Crist trying to straddle a Y-intersecting fencepost given his three different party affiliations in recent years.

“Lifestyles of the rich and famous”

Description: Just like “The Great Straddler,” this ad targeted another longtime Democratic senator — in this case, Fritz Hollings of South Carolina in 1986 — but instead of attacking the incumbent over his issue positions, Republican Henry McMaster’s campaign took him to task over a perceived jet-setting lifestyle. Also similar to the ad used against Moynihan, it was fun but ultimately ineffective: Hollings won in a rout.

Who could use it: Rep. Chris Gibson (R, NY-19) is facing a strong challenge from Sean Eldridge (D), a wealthy investor and activist who is married to Facebook co-founder and New Republic publisher Chris Hughes. Amusingly, the National Republican Congressional Committee has already borrowed from the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” theme in an online ad in this race. Other possible targets could be any wealthy politician: possibilities this cycle include Terry McAuliffe (D), the former Democratic National Committee chairman and Bill Clinton fundraiser running for the Virginia governorship, and Bruce Rauner (R), a venture capitalist running for Illinois governor.

(Speaking of Rauner, we are told he is a very serious candidate to win the Republican nomination in Illinois, although there is a crowded field. With Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan taking a pass on the race and unpopular incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn facing a primary challenge from former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, we have moved this race to a TOSS-UP from leans Democratic, despite the state’s Blue lean. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)

“Action Figure”

Description: Former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura (Reform Party) unexpectedly won the Minnesota governor’s race as a third-party candidate in 1998. In this ad, Ventura wasn’t afraid to spoof his wrestling career — the Jesse Ventura action figure battles special interests while fighting for lower taxes and better government services. This helped get across his message to voters: “Don’t waste your vote on politics as usual.” This is the second ad on our list from Minnesota’s North Woods Advertising, which also made Paul Wellstone’s ads in 1990.

Who could use it: Maine independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler will need to think outside the box to win over voters who may be inclined to vote for either of the two major parties. As Ventura proved, in the right electoral atmosphere, humor and a strong reform message can take down Democrats and Republicans.

“The Wallop Senate Drive” (starting at 0:33 mark)

Description: Republican challenger Malcolm Wallop cut an outsider profile in his 1976 victory over longtime Sen. Gale McGee (D) in Wyoming. In one of the Crystal Ball’s all-time favorite ads, Wallop paints himself as a stereotypical cowboy running for Senate in the Cowboy State. Wallop’s roughrider image was not without its softer spots, though: While Wallop had grown up on a ranch, he was born in New York City, he had a degree from Yale and his grandfather served in the British House of Lords.

Who could use it: Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R-AK). Treadwell, a Connecticut native who has degrees from Yale and Harvard, is the current front-runner to challenge Sen. Mark Begich (D) in the Last Frontier. Shedding an establishment reputation is going to be important for Treadwell, and what better way to do that than to record an ad of him looking like more of a frontiersman? He might consult longtime Rep. Don Young (R-AK) for tips; Young had a classic spot showing him as an “Alaskan Like You” (a great ad produced by master political consultant Robert Goodman that we unfortunately could not find online). Another obvious candidate who ought to study the Wallop Senate Drive? Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president who is challenging Sen. Mike Enzi in next year’s Republican primary. Despite her father’s House career and her family’s homestead in the Cowboy State, Liz Cheney herself has only tenuous connections to Wyoming. So she needs to bolster her authenticity in order to minimize the inevitable charges that she’s a carpetbagger.

“Where’s Dee?”

Description: In one of the most famous non-presidential ads ever, a pack of bloodhounds is trying to track down Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston (D) for skipping votes. The message: The record of a long-time incumbent will come back to bite him or her eventually.

Who could use it: Wouldn’t it be amusing if Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) repurposed this ad to use against the candidate who made it, now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R)? Huddleston was running for his third term; McConnell is now running for his sixth. Then again, maybe not: In his near-miss challenge to McConnell in 2008, Democrat Bruce Lunsford parodied the “Where’s Dee?” ad. Another person who could use a version of this ad would be Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who is likely to be Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-LA) top opponent next year. Landrieu is running for her fourth term, and he’ll have plenty of votes to criticize as he tries to defeat her in the conservative Bayou State.

“Not Your Typical Ad, Not Your Typical Politician”

Description: Near the end of his close 2012 race against Rep. John Tierney (D), Republican challenger Richard Tisei chose to air an unconventional commercial of a quiet beach to give voters a break from traditional campaign ads. The ad was interpreted as a victory lap for Tisei, who many expected would beat the scandal-tinged Tierney. But Tisei ended up losing a very close race.

Who should NOT use this ad: Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and ex-Gov. Mike Rounds (R) are solid favorites to win their respective primaries and general elections in two open, Democratic-held Senate seats. But they shouldn’t take anything for granted, like Tisei might have done with this ad.


Description: One of the true shocks of the 2012 primary season was the unknown veterinarian Ted Yoho (R) knocking off veteran Rep. Cliff Stearns (R) in Florida. Yoho tapped into the outsider, anti-establishment vein in current GOP circles, and the kind of message he tried to convey is evident in this amusing ad, featuring career DC politicians as pigs feeding at a trough.

Who could use it: If anyone is going to upset a veteran Republican senator or House member in a 2014 primary, this is the kind of ad a successful challenger might cut.

“Dead Aim”

Description: Although now-Sen. Joe Manchin (D) was a popular governor in West Virginia, he was still a Democrat running for U.S. Senate in what has become an increasingly Red state. To help him win in 2010, Manchin literally took aim at the Republican attacks against him in an effort to separate himself from the national Democratic Party. Manchin reminded voters that he was backed by the NRA, stated that he would work to repeal “the bad parts of Obamacare,” and memorably used a rifle to shoot a hole in the cap-and-trade bill.

Who could use it: One of Manchin’s fellow Red State Democrats, Sen. Mark Pryor, is faced with winning reelection in Arkansas, a state similar to West Virginia in its recent Republican swing. Pryor recently made waves by refusing to back the Democratic-controlled Senate’s gun control efforts, and the incumbent is already running ads defending his vote as evidence that only Arkansans, not New Yorkers or Washingtonians, can tell him what to do. But Pryor could surely add firepower to his position by physically firing a bullet through the legislation.

“We Are Better Than That!”

Description: Who is Dale Peterson (R)? Well, after running this over-the-top ad trumpeting his conservative values and attacking the political establishment for being full of “thugs and criminals,” many people following politics had at least heard about Peterson, and that he was running for Alabama Agriculture Commissioner in 2010. While he didn’t go on to win the Republican nomination, Peterson went from being completely unknown to losing by a fairly close margin in a three-way race.

Who could use it: Any unknown candidate. We’ll let you know who he or she is after the ad goes viral.

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Of course, we certainly didn’t exhaust the list of memorable campaign spots that could be recycled for use by candidates on both sides of the aisle in 2014. So readers, what ads would you suggest rehashing, and in what races supporting or opposing what candidates? Please e-mail your suggestions to [email protected], and we’ll offer up a list of reader suggestions in the next Crystal Ball.