Can bipartisanship sell in Election 2014? These candidates are banking on it.

Several Senate candidates are touting themselves as part of the solution to Washington's polarization. The pitch is a political necessity for Democrats in red states and vice versa.

By , Staff writer

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    Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn talks with reporters in Decatur, Ga., in May. To compete in the Republican-leaning state, she's highlighted her bipartisan streak.
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Perhaps surprisingly amid intensely partisan times in Washington, several high-profile candidates for Senate are trying to make inroads with voters by touting their bipartisan credentials. 

In Georgia, upstart Michelle Nunn, a Democrat and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, says voters tell her “they are tired of the dysfunction, the finger-pointing, and the name-calling.” She wants to do something about it. 

In Virginia, incumbent Sen. Mark Warner, also a Democrat, is running on a record of reaching across the aisle. “Every piece of major legislation I’ve worked on, I’ve got a Republican partner,” he recently said on a campaign swing through the state.

Recommended: How much do you know about bipartisanship? Take our quiz.

With the tea party pushing candidates rightward during primary season, compromise remains a dirty word for most Republicans – at least until the general election. But in New Hampshire, Scott Brown boasts: “I’m a problem-solver.”

In a politically polarized America, can bipartisanship sell?

For these candidates, the bipartisan sales pitch comes down to political necessity, says Jennifer Duffy, senior political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Plain and simple, Democratic candidates running in “purply, reddish” states such as Georgia “can’t win based on just Democratic votes,” she says. “They need to get some crossover votes.”

A perfect example is Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), who’s in a tough race in Louisiana. She worked with Republicans and Democrats on legislation to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline – though the bill died last month in a filibuster battle.

“I think we need senators that will find common ground and compromise,” she told NBC’s Chuck Todd in May. “I’m one of the few that’s left.”

Louisiana has voted Republican in the last four presidential elections.

Whether such a message can give these candidates an edge depends on the state and the candidate. Senator Warner has a substantial bipartisan record as a businessman, a popular former governor of Virginia, and as a dealmaker in the Senate. Virginia is starkly split between blue and red regions, though the trend line suggests it is becoming bluer.

A state like Kentucky is trickier. It has more registered Democrats than Republicans. That might – on the face of it – work in favor of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. She’s challenging incumbent Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republican minority in the Senate, whom she constantly blames for Washington’s dysfunction. The two are tied in polls.

On the other hand, voters in Kentucky tend to favor Republicans in national elections. Ms. Grimes, who is promising to “work with members of both parties” when she’s in the Senate, is young and, as Kentucky’s secretary of state, doesn’t have much of a track record to back up her consensus-building claims.

The bipartisanship message isn’t only about the math, says Lucas Caron, director of Olypmia’s List, a political action committee founded by former Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine. In 2012, Senator Snowe decided not to run for a fourth term because of the polarization in Congress and is instead taking her fight for bipartisanship to the rest of the country.

The new PAC, finding its feet for the first time in this election cycle, seeks to encourage and reward candidates who demonstrate an ability to reach across the aisle and build consensus, says Mr. Caron. “We have to beat this gridlock if want to get anything done.”

So far, Olympia's List has donated to the Senate campaigns of Republican newcomers Monica Wehby in Oregon and Shelley Capito in West Virginia, and GOP incumbents Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. More endorsements and donations are coming, and Olympia's List seeks to spread support through Facebook and Twitter.

The PAC hasn't ruled out supporting Democrats, as well, but it’s sticking with the GOP for now. Says Caron: “A more moderate or big-tent Republican Party will help everybody, because it will give Democrats and Independents somebody to negotiate with."

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