By Joe Vardon
Who's the incumbent here?
A TV commercial shows a man named Bill Johnson walking across a field and talking about Congress, and soon he rips into "Congressman Charlie Wilson and Nancy Pelosi" for their votes in Washington.
He finishes the spot by reminding viewers that it's "Congressman Charlie Wilson" who is the problem.
But the man in the ad, Republican Bill Johnson, is the congressman. He beat Democrat Wilson in Ohio's 6th Congressional District in 2010, and Wilson is challenging him to win back the seat.
In three similar ads, two on TV and one online, Johnson portrays himself as the outsider and Wilson as the incumbent. The ads are a nod to the toxicity surrounding incumbent officeholders in elections and a wink toward a Congress with an approval rating under 20 percent.
"No doubt; absolutely," said political consultant Mark L. Weaver about the theme of the TV spots. He is working for Johnson's re-election campaign and was an architect of the ads. "When you have a fella who spent his life in the military and then in private business who's been in office 18 months, running against a career politician, that's an important difference, and we're certainly going to talk about it."
The 6th District covers a large swath of eastern Ohio along the Ohio River.
The anti-incumbent approach worked there for the conservative Johnson, so his team is sticking with that approach even after he has been in Congress for a year and a half. He is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and businessman from Marietta, and he was one of five Republicans to unseat Ohio congressional Democrats in 2010.
None of Johnson's ads mentions that he serves in Congress, but they all make references to Wilson as a congressman, often showing the Democrat next to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Johnson's campaign is also sponsoring a website, SaySorryCharlie.com, that rips Wilson for his voting record and leaves no indication that it's Johnson who's currently the district's congressman.
"Congressman Wilson will always be known as "Congressman Wilson' for the rest of his life, because that's the title he got when he was elected," Weaver said, arguing that most people in the district know Johnson is their representative because of media coverage and town-hall meetings he holds.
But Wilson, of St. Clairsville, countered that Johnson is using the ads to hide from his own record.
"I think Congressman Johnson wants voters to believe he's not part of a Washington that's broken," said Wilson, who served in the Ohio legislature from 1997 through 2006 before joining Congress in 2007. Wilson continues to operate both Wilson Funeral Home and Wilson Furniture, according to his campaign.
Johnson "is very much a part of what's broken. He's part of the problem," Wilson said.
Wilson agreed that Johnson is employing a similar anti-incumbent strategy to the one that helped him beat Wilson in 2010 but insists there's more to it. Wilson said Johnson's a part of an " obstructionist" U.S. House that's tried to stall President Barack Obama at nearly every turn.
"I don't think it's gonna work," Wilson said. "I think he's got to own" his record.
The 6th District has a pro-Republican "index" of about 54 percent. But Jerry Miller, a political-communication professor at Ohio University in Athens, said one reason for Johnson to run the ads "is because of the popularity of Wilson."
Johnson "can create a bit of a safety net and not draw attention to his own candidacy," Miller said. "He can still appear as a bit of an outsider."