GOP takes new approach in ads for Senate races

WASHINGTON -- In the waning days of the 2008 elections, Republicans from the top of the ticket on down are making a remarkable appeal: Vote for me, because the rest of my party seems headed for defeat.

A spate of new ads paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee are premised on Barack Obama beating John McCain. Some even say that Democrats could pick up enough Senate seats to have a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes. McCain, meanwhile, is arguing that a vote for him is a check against a Democrat-dominated Congress.

"Sending Jeff Merkley to the U.S. Senate could give one party a blank check … again," says an announcer in an ad for Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, a Republican in a close race with Merkley, a Democrat. "Especially in this economy, Oregon needs an independent voice in the U.S. Senate."

In North Carolina, where Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole is at risk of losing to Democrat Kay Hagan, the announcer intones, "Who's the Senate race really about? Hagan or Dole? Neither one. It's about liberals in Washington. They want complete control of the government … The left wants 60 votes in the Senate."

In Louisiana, another ad paid for by the Republican committee said of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu: "Landrieu votes with Barack Obama 81% of the time. Landrieu endorsed Obama. … Don't give Washington liberals complete control; don't give them a blank check."

"We are not by any means suggesting that John McCain is going to lose this election," said Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the Republican senatorial committee. "What we are saying is, if he does, and if the Democrats win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, you are looking at radical changes to the direction of our country."

Non-partisan election handicappers see an increasing chance that Democrats could win enough Senate seats to prevent Senate Republicans from blocking legislation. That hasn't happened since Jimmy Carter was president.

Democrats control the Senate by a voting margin of 51 to 49, though their ranks include two independents who side with them. Jennifer Duffy, who watches the Senate for The Cook Political Report, predicts that Democrats will gain between seven and nine seats.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent nearly twice as much in key races as the National Republican Senatorial Committee, by a count of $55.3 million to $29.3 million, reports the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute.

With Senate Republicans hypothetically writing him off, McCain has been quick to return the favor by warning that an Obama victory would mean Democrats running both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. In Colorado on Sunday, McCain said: "The answer to a slowing economy is not higher taxes, but that is exactly what is going to happen when the Democrats have total control of Washington."

"It's really striking, because Republicans as a political tribe have always put a very high premium on party loyalty," said John Hinshaw, a history professor at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. "It might blow up in their faces, because voters might think, 'Maybe let's give the Democrats a shot at fixing this.' "

Some doom-saying Republicans are not even on the ballot. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a McCain rival in the GOP primary, wrote in a fundraising e-mail that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford "will be a reliable vote for the Democrats. And as we face the very real possibility of an Obama presidency, that's the last thing we need."

One reason candidates are employing that rather stark message is that they were having trouble breaking through the intense public interest in the presidential campaign, Fisher said.

Matt Miller, spokesman for the Democratic senatorial committee, had a different take: "Looks to me like a circular firing squad."