OLYMPIA, Wash. – Patty Murray was stuck. Down in the polls for months and facing a well-known Republican challenger, the three-term Democrat was finding a difficult market for her hard-working-Senator sales pitch.
Then she started bashing Wall Street.
Now, less than a month before ballots are distributed in Washington's vote-by-mail election, Murray is apparently benefiting from some old-fashioned class warfare. She has gone from essentially being tied with challenger Dino Rossi to leading in the latest round of polls, proving that the 2010 Democratic campaign theme of linking the GOP to Wall Street greed can resonate with voters.
Murray, a three-term incumbent, started running anti-Wall Street TV ads shortly before the August primary, criticizing Rossi's advocacy of repealing new Wall Street regulations. She began airing another anti-Wall Street commercial this month, followed 10 days later by an ad that pledged support for middle-class tax breaks over favors for big business.
Voters in several competitive Senate races are hearing similar arguments.
Democratic Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak and Republican candidate Pat Toomey have sparred over allegiance to the financial sector — Sestak supported the federal bank bailouts, while Toomey once worked in investment banking.
In Missouri, Democrat Robin Carnahan has criticized Republican Rep. Roy Blunt for helping to negotiate bank bailouts and then opposing Democrats' new Wall Street regulations.
And in a debate earlier this month, California Sen. Barbara Boxer tore into the $21 million severance package that Republican challenger Carly Fiorina received after she was let go as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co.
"I don't think we need those Wall Street values right now," Boxer said.
There's good reason for Democrats to try a blame-Wall-Street message as they scramble to avoid thumping losses on the campaign trail — the financial sector might be more unpopular than they are.
The latest AP-GfK poll, conducted in mid-September, showed that Americans lay heavy blame for the Great Recession on the financial industry and lax regulation of banks. Bankers and financiers also ranked last in August's AP-National Constitution Center poll that tested public confidence in national institutions.
Tapping into the anger, Democrats from President Barack Obama on down have been trotting out the blame-the-banks banks mantra as they fight to maintain control of Congress and deflect voter irritation with party. Democrats need Murray to win to keep the Senate, especially if they surrender seats elsewhere as expected.
With several weeks left in an already bruising campaign, it's unclear whether Murray's blame-Wall-Street strategy will provide lasting help.
But Murray's campaign appears to have rebounded at least temporarily from a difficult summer of ratings below 50 percent — very dangerous territory for any incumbent, especially when insider credentials and Washington clout are no longer strong selling points. A series of polls in recent weeks has put her above 50 percent.
Rossi's campaign has a large fundraising disadvantage, crimping its ability to counter Murray's multimillion-dollar ad buying power. But Rossi also took too long to respond, said Seattle-area Republican consultant Chris Vance.
"Politics 101: When you're punched, you punch back. And they chose to run soft ads at first," said Vance, who is not working on the Senate race.
Rossi has since replied more forcefully, with a TV ad citing Murray's Wall Street bailout vote as part of "an 18-year record of taxing, spending and growing government that's indefensible."
Rossi's campaign also points out that Murray has collected plenty of campaign checks from Wall Street donors and other big-business supporters.
"If Sen. Murray is as disgusted with Wall Street money as her ads imply, she should return the nearly $555,000 she has received from the securities and investment industry" over her career, Rossi spokeswoman Jennifer Morris said.
Murray and Rossi have both taken Wall Street donations, albeit on very different scales.
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows Murray has raised nearly $200,000 from securities and investment employees, their spouses, and industry political action committees during this campaign cycle.
That's about 1.7 percent of Murray's total campaign haul of nearly $11.8 million. The totals come from federal reports through late July.
Rossi's campaign has raised only about $97,000 from financial-industry sources. That's about 4.8 percent of his total raised, nearly $2 million through late July's reports to the Federal Election Commission.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa.; David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo.; and Judy Lin in Sacramento, Calif.