WASHINGTON (AP) — This year's Senate races have featured astronomical spending, ceaseless attack ads and innumerable slaps at a president who's not on the ballot. Largely missing, however, are ideas on how best to govern the nation.
Even with control of the Senate at stake, serious discussions about deficit spending, climate change, immigration, Social Security's long-term future and other knotty issues rarely emerged.
Republicans overwhelmingly devoted their campaigns to criticizing President Barack Obama's leadership and governing style. And Democrats, while sometimes forced to wanly defend "Obamacare," often caricatured their opponents as throwbacks eager to limit women's reproductive rights.
To be sure, superficial debates and 30-second attack ads have fueled U.S. political campaigns for years. But even by that measure, political veterans say, this fall's elections were remarkably light on policy and ideas.
"I'm struck by how not any of the significant issues that Congress has to deal with — immigration, infrastructure, a grand bargain on taxes and spending — are playing out in this election," said Steve Elmendorf, a former top Democratic congressional aide.
Some Democratic lawmakers weren't excited by a "Families First" agenda that party leaders wrote for the 1996 elections, Elmendorf said. "But we felt we had to have a policy umbrella to give to members."
"I don't think either side has done that this time," he said.
Campaign strategists say it's no surprise. From the start, Republicans centered their campaigns on tying their opponents to Obama's sinking popularity. As months passed, nothing reversed Obama's fortunes, and most Republicans saw no point in stirring things up with new proposals.
"When your opponents are destroying themselves, let them," said Texas-based Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak.
He said Republican leaders suppressed a request from some candidates for a party-wide platform or "contract" to highlight various ideas.
"When you do that, you give your opponents something to bash," Mackowiak said. "The strongest card we had to play was to run against the president."
Iowa's close Senate race was one where personal attacks and clever TV ads greatly overshadowed any discussion of how to tackle the nation's most pressing needs.
For Republicans, the breakthrough moment was a TV ad in which state Sen. Joni Ernst cheerily said she castrated hogs as a farm girl. The wink-wink reference to knowing how to "cut pork" propelled her to the GOP nomination and national attention.
For Democrat Bruce Braley, the biggest moment was a leaked video from a Texas fundraiser in which he warned lawyers that a farmer would chair the Senate Judiciary Committee if Republicans control the Senate. The apparent snub of six-term Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa played badly in the farm-heavy state.
It was fitting, perhaps, that the Iowa contest's final weekend featured arguments about whether retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin — whose seat is in play — made sexist comments about Ernst. That's what Republicans alleged after Harkin said many people find Ernst "really attractive, and she sounds nice."
Harkin continued, "I don't care if she's as good looking as Taylor Swift or as nice as Mr. Rogers, but if she votes like Michele Bachmann, she's wrong for the state of Iowa." Harkin apologized for the remarks Monday.
This year's issue that got the most campaign lip service was the president's 2010 health care overhaul, which Republicans call "Obamacare." Discussions, however, sometimes involved "a level of dissembling that's almost jaw-dropping," said congressional scholar Norm Ornstein.
He cited Republicans who vow to repeal the entire law while somehow restoring popular parts, such as requiring insurance companies to cover new customers who have serious health problems. Health officials say that pick-and-choose approach won't work, because it strips away revenue essential to pay for the popular features.
Democrats pressed congressional Republicans to spell out a plausible alternative to the health law. But GOP leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, nixed the idea, leaving most Democrats to defend "Obamacare" without a competing plan to compare it to.
Ornstein said it might not matter much. America's voters are so divided, and so motivated by fear and anger, he said, "that whatever you say about issues isn't going to matter."
Some Virginia Republicans might unhappily agree. GOP Senate nominee Ed Gillespie, seen as trailing Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, was among the few Republicans nationwide to offer a comprehensive alternative to "Obamacare."
Gillespie's plan would no longer obligate people to obtain health insurance, but it would provide tax credits to help buy it. The proposal received modest attention in a contest dominated by TV ads that either accuse Warner of involvement in backroom political favoritism, or accuse Gillespie of being a profit-driven lobbyist.
John J. Pitney, Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, says neither party is likely to produce policy proposals as long as they think the presidency or the House or Senate majority is within reach.
"Power is the enemy of new ideas," he said.