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House experience a minus for some Senate hopefuls

Shay_run.jpg

File: Nov. 2, 2009: Former Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., running for a House seat again in 2012.AP

U.S. House members who are trying to make the step up to the Senate this year are finding themselves on the defensive about Washington experience that traditionally has been a big asset.

Even those not under direct attack for being part of Congress are finessing the way they talk about their work in the nation's capital -- evidence that the strong anti-incumbent sentiment among voters in 2010 is still there two years later.

"Washington experience or experience in elected office in Washington is not necessarily the ticket to the U.S. Senate it has been in the past," said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist. "Clearly people are looking for something different."

Campaigns clearly see that. Just look at Republican primaries in three key states: Missouri, Connecticut and Arizona.

In Missouri, Rep. Todd Akin has had to defend his time in Washington as his two primary opponents criticize votes he has taken and position themselves as outsiders. In Connecticut, Linda McMahon, running again after being soundly beaten in her 2010 Senate race, is getting traction with party activists as an outsider opposite former Rep. Chris Shays. And in Arizona, Rep. Jeff Flake, largely viewed as a conservative outsider in the House, is being slapped with the insider label by his tea party-inspired opponent.

Some House Democrats looking to make the leap are dealing with the same stigma.

Hawaii Rep. Mazie Hirono, trying to succeed retiring Daniel Akaka in what has been a sure seat for Democrats, faces Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, who's made her status as a Washington outsider a key part of her appeal. In Nevada, Rep. Shelley Berkley has come under fire for her work in the House by her opponent, GOP Sen. Dean Heller -- himself a former member of the House.

Bashing members of the House makes sense. Polls show voters' disdain for Congress at near historic levels.

A mid-April CBS/New York Times poll put Congress' approval rating at 13 percent, with 77 percent disapproving of how members are handling their jobs. Another poll, conducted by Quinnipiac in mid-April, had approval for Democrat and Republican members of Congress at 27 percent and 23 percent respectively.

Historically, voters have valued experience. Half of the Senate's current members first served in the House, including seven of the 16 who were newly elected in 2010.

But over the past three election cycles -- two strong Democratic years before the Republican wave of 2010 -- voters have been looking more and more for candidates viewed as fresh faces. The biggest examples two years ago were Mike Lee's upset of 18-year Senate veteran Robert Bennett in Utah's GOP caucus and veteran GOP Rep. Mike Castle's loss in Delaware's GOP Senate primary to tea party-endorsed Christine O'Donnell.

"Republican primaries, especially on the Republican side, reward those who go to the extremes as opposed to rewarding those who seek to govern and lead," said Democratic consultant Chris Lehane. "As a consequence, the incumbency tag becomes the electoral equivalent of the scarlet letter and makes a candidate vulnerable to charges of being a compromiser."

Running with a record in the House still has its advantages. The candidate starts with name recognition, a political and geographic base, easier access to campaign cash, a larger platform to launch a campaign from and a better ability to attract quality staff.

But all of that can be upended when voters are angry.

"Congress is more fundamentally unpopular now than in 2010," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist. "People think they sent a message in 2010 and they think it's fallen on deaf ears, so they're almost twice as mad at Washington. Things didn't get fixed and so the disapproval numbers of Congress have bottomed out. So candidates are sort of running away from that label."

That's why a candidate like Rep. Connie Mack, eager to sew up tea party support in his GOP Senate primary in Florida, recently called the Republican budget passed by his colleagues in the House a "joke" -- before clarifying that he was referring to the process by which the budget passed.

And it's why first-term Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., running for the Senate against former state attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, will continue to sound like a candidate who hasn't spent two years in Washington already.

"If we don't do something," Berg said at the end of March, in accepting his party's nomination, "our kids are going to live in an America that has lost its way."