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Politicians Get Personal With Memorable Early Campaign Ads

Dr. Monica Wehby, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Oregon, appears in the much-talked-about campaign ad "Trust."
Dr. Monica Wehby Senate campaign
Dr. Monica Wehby, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Oregon, appears in the much-talked-about campaign ad "Trust."

Ready or not, here come the 2014 campaign ads.

As you'd expect, there are lots of attack ads about Democrats who backed Obamacare, and Republicans who are backed by the Koch brothers.

But it's not all punch and counterpunch. Some notable biographical ads stand out.

It is highly likely that you have never heard of Dr. Monica Wehby. But her newest ad in the Oregon Republican U.S. Senate primary is one people are talking about.

It features a woman looking back years ago to a difficult pregnancy.

"My OB doctor called me and said there's something wrong with your baby's spine, and we have to look at terminating your pregnancy. The world stopped," says the woman in the ad.

That's when she met Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon.

"Dr. Wehby was going to open her back and reconstruct my daughter's entire lower spine. She just hugged me and kissed my forehead and said, 'It's gonna be OK, sweetheart. I've got her, and I'm going to see you in a couple of hours,' " the woman says.

The surgery was a success. That girl is now 12.

The spot itself isn't groundbreaking. It's just very well done — with a compelling story and an underlying message.

"It covers so many different bases on personality. Trust, competence, compassion, all of these things, and it communicates a policy issue: that is, the issue of life. Whether you're pro-choice or pro-life, she's able to communicate the importance of life in a nonaggressive way," says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.

Now to Alaska and another biographical ad — this one for an incumbent U.S. senator, Democrat Mark Begich, who is in a tough re-election fight.

The ad recalls Begich's father — Alaska Rep. Nick Begich — who died when a small plane went down in the wilderness during a campaign trip in 1972. The late Rep. Hale Boggs was also on that plane.

"Mark was 10 when he lost his father. We've lost too many Alaskans this same way. But Mark is clearly his father's son, and there's nowhere he won't go to listen and stand up for Alaskans. He forced Washington to open up the Arctic Ocean to oil drilling," the ad states.

It's a powerful personal story that Geer says also reminds Alaskans that Begich is not just that guy who went to Washington.

Let's look at two more spots. First, from U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas. The Democrat sits in a chair holding his Bible.

"I'm not ashamed to say I believe in God, and I believe in his word. The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers, only God does, and neither political party is always right," Pryor says.

Then there's Republican congressional hopeful Carl DeMaio in California, a gay Republican whose ad includes a photo of him holding hands with his partner.

"He believes in equality and diversity, and is a defender of our personal freedoms. Power of people over partisanship," the ad says.

These two ads are like mirrors: one for a Democrat in a red state and the other for a Republican in a blue state.

"When you're a minority party, you've got to figure out some way to get people who are independent and from the other side to vote for you. Both of these candidates have sketched out some ways to do it, and we'll see if they're successful in the long run," says Geer.

All of these carefully crafted minibiographies have been in the works for many, many months. Geer says once the campaigns really heat up, ads become tools to respond quickly to the unexpected. In the process, they'll lose the polish — and the narrative power — of these early efforts.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.