WASHINGTON -- Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes is a die-hard Democrat in a staunchly Democratic state. But you'd never know it from his new campaign commercials.
They tell his life story, how he grew up in an apartment over the family restaurant and still comes home at night to the Baltimore neighborhood he's lived in for 25 years. The word "Democrat" isn't mentioned, nor that he's been an incumbent for 24 of those years.
In Arizona, Senate candidate Jon Kyl has a unique story, too. He's a four-term Republican congressman whose father was a Republican congressman before him. But his TV ads don't touch on his political pedigree; instead, they portray him as a "different kind of leader," a regular guy whose car radiator once boiled over when he drove his family across the desert.
That's the way it's going this election year. With Americans still nursing a serious grudge against Washington politics as usual, members of Congress are doing everything they can to say, "Not The result: in Campaign '94, the two-party system sometimes seems to have become the no-party system. Officeholders are disguised as outsiders, and many Democrats are keeping as far away as possible from their man in the White House.
"These days, identifying with any political institution is unpopular," explains Greg Schneiders, a Democratic political consultant. "That's why incumbents don't make much of their incumbency or their party."
For a long time, it was standard fare for a representative or senator to shoot campaign commercials that showed the
lawmaker gaveling an important committee hearing to order or walking down the Capitol steps, coat slung casually over the shoulder. Not this year.
"If you take a film crew to Washington, you die," says Neil Oxman, a Democratic media consultant from Philadelphia. "You do your shoots back in the district."
That's what Mr. Oxman did for Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, who is seeking a third six-year term this fall. His ads depict the Democrat as an independent-minded fighter for his home state's interests, by showing "interviews" with Bingaman supporters.
"He votes for what he believes in, and not just for the party," a woman says in one Bingaman ad. The commercials don't even hint at the fact that the senator has become a skilled Washington insider and part of one of the capital's leading power couples; his wife, Anne, is a top Clinton Justice Department appointee.
Years of service in Washington used to be a matter of pride to lawmakers, and a strong selling point at election time. That's no longer true.
Indeed, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in a tough re-election race, is going out of her way to say how little Washington experience she has.
"In my short time in the Senate . . ." the California Democrat says in several TV ads, referring to her election two years ago to a partial term. Her campaign slogan: "I've just begun to fight."
In Wisconsin, Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl can't really run for re-election as the political neophyte he was in 1988, but he's trying. "He hasn't let Washington change him," campaign commercials assure the folks back home.
Politicians reach most voters these days through television, especially in statewide races for senator or governor. But buzzwords like "Democrat, Republican or incumbent" aren't being used as much in other campaign materials, either.
Douglas Bailey, a longtime Republican media consultant, is seeing "fewer and fewer bumper strips that say re-elect somebody."
Mr. Bailey, who runs a political news service, points out there's nothing new about the trend away from party labels. Politicians realized long ago that those labels aren't worth as much as they used to be, as party identification weakened and more voters chose to regard themselves as independent.
Now, however, party labels aren't just unhelpful; they're downright negative, in the view of some strategists.
Ever since Watergate, in the early 1970s, it's been rare for Republican candidates to advertise their party affiliation, except the Republican faithful. Now, more Democrats are hiding their partisan identity as well.
"You're going to see a lot of this," says Mr. Oxman, the Democratic adman. "You'll see some people running away from the president
this year and running away from the party."
He estimates that of the 500 commercials he will make, nine out of 10 will omit the party label.
For Democrats, the past two years have been a downer. They've lost a series of high-profile races, including special elections for Congress, the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia and mayor's races in Los Angeles and New York. What's more, President Clinton's popularity has slumped.
The movement away from party identification also has been fed by Ross Perot's independent presidential campaign and by the public's anger over partisan bickering in Washington. One consequence has been a rise in independents.
Although there is only one independent in Congress out of 535 members (Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont) and two independent state governors (Walter J. Hickel of Alaska and Lowell P. Weicker of Connecticut), 20 states have independent or third-party candidates running for governor or senator this fall.
And some card-carrying Democratic and Republican candidates seem to want voters to think of them that way. In Arizona, Democratic Rep. Sam Coppersmith is competing for his party's senatorial nomination, but it's the word "Independent," not "Democrat," that flashes on the screen in his ads.
In 1991, Oklahoma Rep. Dave McCurdy openly considered a try for the Democratic presidential nomination and later campaigned unsuccessfully for a job in the Clinton Cabinet. But as he runs for the Senate in his Republican-trending home state this year, his identity as a leading House Democrat has been submerged.
"I ask Oklahomans to vote for me because of my independence," Mr. McCurdy says in a commercial.
Mark A. Siegel, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee, believes if candidates continue to duck party labels, it inevitably will lead to a further "diffusion of the two-party system and increase the likelihood of third-party and independent candidacies at the local and state level, and ultimately the national level."
That argument, however, is unlikely to persuade politicians who will do whatever it takes to save their own necks. In the mad-as-hell '92 campaign, many House and Senate incumbents ran against Congress -- by denouncing gridlock in Washington and supporting reforms such as term limits. That November, 92 percent of the incumbents were re-elected.