From N. Carolina to S. Dakota, candidates vie to be of the people, not of Washington.
The pork is sizzling at Wilbur's Barbecue, and so is Democratic Senate hopeful Erskine Bowles, who doffs his pinstripe persona for shirtsleeves and a down-home, Nascar-dad delivery.
"If you don't think I'm excited and jacked up to be with y'all, you're craaa-zy," he says as he leaps to the podium before a lunch for tobacco farmers in Goldsboro, N.C. Then, he tells the story about being mistaken for the weather man by a big ol' boy at Burger King, adding: "I eat 90 percent of my meals at Burger King." It's good for a laugh in Goldsboro and, the next day, at a rally in Greenville.
So why is this former Clinton chief of staff and courtly wonk campaigning as Andy of Mayberry, supercharged? Because elections aren't only about getting the issues right. They're also about connections with people: Get that piece wrong, and you lose.
It's an age-old lesson of politics, but one amplified this year by a 50-50 electoral landscape. In a year of intense feelings, when many voters will opt for a straight Democratic or Republican ticket, control of the US Senate could hinge on a few races where candidates are emphasizing local ties.
"Voters aren't just toting up issues, as they do on a Chinese menu. They're looking for cultural affinity. They want some sense that the candidates understand their lives," says Ferrell Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"It's especially true for Democrats in the South," he adds, "because Republicans have surged in large part by defining Southern Democrats as part of the national Democratic framework."
Republicans now hold a 51-48 edge over Democrats in the Senate. With one independent senator aligned with Democrats, a shift of just two seats would tip control away from the GOP.