Both political parties are functioning in the 2006 House races as factories for attack ads, but the National Republican Campaign Committee’s work stands out this year for the sheer volume of assaults on the personal character of Democratic House challengers.
The ads being aired by both the NRCC and its rival, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, are overwhelmingly negative. However, the DCCC ads generally attack Republican candidates on policy issues or their performance in office – accusing them of casting votes favorable to drug or oil companies, or of supporting President Bush’s unpopular policies in Iraq or on Social Security. We’ve recently criticized factual inaccuracies we’ve seen in some of those, and we’ll have more to say in a later article. Here we focus on the NRCC’s ads, which are much more likely to demean an opponent’s character. That’s the very definition of political mudslinging.
The Republican ads variously accuse Democratic candidates of such things as charging an “adult fantasy” phone call to taxpayers, of being a “hypocrite,” of being a “greedy trial lawyer,” of being a “millionaire know-it-all,” or of failing to pay local business taxes on time. One ad describes a Democrat’s “ethical judgments” as “bad to bizarre” and claims he favored use of 50,000-volt Taser weapons on seven-year-olds.
A derogatory ad can be accurate, and when supported by facts can give voters information about a candidate that they may well find relevant. For example, one NRCC ad correctly states that a Democratic candidate wrote a letter asking a judge to go easy when sentencing a felon convicted of bank fraud in a scandal that bilked hundreds of homeowners. However, several of the NRCC’s ads are smears that twist facts or ignore them. A sheriff running for the House is accused of having “fixed” a speeding ticket for his daughter, for example, when in fact the ticket was paid and the daughter got no special treatment. We found repeated examples of this sort of thing, and we detail them here.
First the numbers. Spending by the two party committees tells part of the story. According to the Federal Election Commission, so far in this election cycle the NRCC has spent $41.9 million attacking Democratic opponents and $5 million supporting its own candidates, roughly an 8:1 negative-to-positive ratio. The DCCC has spent $18 million and $3.1 million, respectively, for a 5:1 ratio. Most of that money on both sides is spent on television advertising.
We zoomed in for a closer look, reviewing all ads by the DCCC and NRCC that appeared since Labor Day in any of the top 101 television markets, which reach 87 per cent of American TV viewers. Copies of the ads were supplied to us by the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Of the 115 NRCC ads, we judged 91 per cent to be purely negative. The DCCC’s 104 ads included 81 per cent we found to be purely negative. We found very few on either side that were all positive, but the DCCC’s contained more mixed or “comparative” ads – a mix of positive statements about the supported candidate and negative statements about the opponent.
What stood out in the NRCC’s ads was a pronounced tendency to be petty and personal, and sometimes careless with the facts. We found 29 of the NRCC’s ads to be assaults of a personal nature on a candidate’s character or private professional dealings, rather than critiques of his or her views or votes while in federal, state or local office. Applying the same screen to the DCCC, we came up with 15 such ads, and several of those were comparative, rather than purely negative. We’d note, and leave for our readers to judge its relevance, that since there are more GOP incumbents than Democratic ones, the Republicans’ opponents may be individuals who don’t have voting records to attack.
We first noticed the NRCC’s proclivity for hitting below the belt even before the fall campaign season kicked off, in the special election for convicted Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s open seat in California last spring. Multiple NRCC attacks on Democrat Francine Busby included a mailer that likened her to “dangerous” and “irresponsible” teenage drunk drivers. She lost by 5 points in the June 6 special election and is currently the Democratic candidate in the Nov. 7 general election.
By late September, it was increasingly clear that this kind of attack was becoming a staple for the NRCC, and it was no accident. A New York Times story on Sept. 27 said that the Republicans’ attacks were “the product of more than a year of research into the personal and professional backgrounds of Democratic challengers.” Said Rep. Tom Reynolds, chair of the NRCC:
Reynolds: We haven’t even begun to unload this freight train.
Well, the train is at the station, and the freight being unloaded isn’t pretty, or necessarily true.
New York Democrat Michael Acuri has learned that in spades. One of the NRCC’s spots attacking him accuses him of billing taxpayers for a call to a “fantasy hotline.” In fact, the evidence shows someone using the phone in Arcuri’s hotel room misdialed and hung up in seconds, and the total charge to taxpayers was $1.25.
The ad is laden with sexual innuendo. A woman’s voice says “Hi sexy, you’ve reached the live one on one fantasy line.” Arcuri is pictured appearing to leer as the silhouette of a woman undulates suggestively in the background.
“The phone number to an adult fantasy hotline appeared on Michael Arcuri’s New York City hotel room bill while he was there on official business,” the announcer says. “Who calls a fantasy hotline and then bills taxpayers? Michael Arcuri.”
The facts of this case paint a much different picture. The phone records indeed show a call to the number of an adult fantasy talk service at 3:26 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2004, but the very next minute – 3:27 p.m. – the records show another number was dialed. The second number was identical except for the three-digit area code, and was the number of the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services. It was Sean Byrne, executive director of the New York Prosecutors Training Institute, who made both calls, according to Arcuri and Byrne. Both were attending a meeting of the New York State District Attorneys Association. The hotel’s charge for the misdialed “fantasy” line call was $1.25.
Another NRCC-produced ad hammers Arcuri with a claim that an accused rapist was freed after Arcuri’s office “failed to indict him in time.” Why? According to the local newspaper, the scheduled indictment hearing couldn’t go forward because the 13-year-old victim didn’t appear and a key witness had been admitted to a psychiatric facility. The ad doesn’t mention that the accused man was indicted several days later. His freedom lasted eight days. Eventually he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge (Arcuri’s case was weakened because the young victim was reluctant to cooperate) and was sentenced to 18 months to 3 years behind bars. The same ad says the “percentage of felony convictions” in Oneida County, where Arcuri is district attorney, “has fallen dramatically since 1998.” That’s false, according to our calculations from statistics available from New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. In 1998, 88.1 percent of felonies prosecuted in the county resulted in convictions. In 2005, it was 90.3. That’s an increase of 2.2 percentage points, not a decrease, much less a dramatic one.
The NRCC ads show a tendency to turn policy differences into name-calling attacks on personal character. An NRCC ad in Arizona called Democratic candidate Gabrielle Giffords “a hypocrite on taxes.” The ad misrepresents her actual position on federal taxes, however. It says she falsely claims to favor tax cuts, when in fact she supports repealing some of the tax cuts Republicans gave to corporations and wealthy individuals. She does favor extending “middle class” tax breaks such as a deduction for college tuition.
In Iowa, another name-calling ad characterizes Democratic candidate Bruce Braley as a “greedy trial lawyer.” The ad complains that he “supported the suit for a woman spilling hot coffee on her lap.” But the famous lawsuit against McDonald’s was actually more substantial than late-night comics made it out to be. Stella Leibeck, the 79-year-old plaintiff, suffered third-degree burns over 6 per cent of her body, spent eight days in the hospital and required skin grafts, and McDonald’s served its coffee at a scalding 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than coffee served at home.
Still more name-calling NRCC ads refer to Wisconsin Democrat Steve Kagen as “Dr. Millionaire,” and one even calls him “Dr. Millionaire Know-It-All.” Kagen is certainly a prosperous physician. But if being a millionaire disqualifies somebody from serving in the House of Representatives a slew of members will have to resign – 136, to be precise, or almost one-third, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Eighty-seven of them are Republicans, versus 49 Democrats. The “know-it-all” line refers to Kagen’s desire to scrap President Bush’s Medicare prescription drug benefit for one of his own design.
Democrats are not innocent when it comes to making false or misleading attacks on personal character, as regular readers of this site are well aware. For one example see our Oct. 18 article on a DCCC ad accusing Florida Republican Clay Shaw of profiting from a “drug deal” by trading in a pharmaceutical company’s stock, which we found to be based on flimsy evidence at best.
But the pattern of deceptive and unfounded personal allegations contained in this year’s NRCC ads is one we judge to be truly remarkable. Other examples:
Sued his patients. NRCC ads say Dr. Kagen “took legal action against eighty former patients.” Misleading. It’s true that Kagen hired a collection agency that took a total of 80 patients to small claims court for arbitration of unpaid bills, but that was over the course of a 25-year career in which Kagen estimates he has seen 50,000 patients. Kagen says the agency deemed them all able to pay.
“Not paying his taxes on time.” A North Carolina ad says of Democratic candidate Heath Shuler, “He’s been caught again not paying his taxes on time.” False. The unpaid taxes weren’t “his” and payment wasn’t his responsibility. The delinquent taxes were the fault of businessmen who bought a real-estate brokerage from Shuler and his brother in 2003. It’s true that The Associated Press found that the brokerage, which still bears Shuler’s name, owed $69,000 and had been chronically behind in paying local taxes, but Shuler at that point retained only a minority interest and no management chores. The taxes and penalties were paid after Shuler’s lawyer threatened to sue the current managers if they didn’t, according to The AP.
“Seven-year olds! Tased!” An NRCC ad in Ohio includes a charge that Democratic Challenger John Cranley “voted to allow children as young as seven to be tased. Seven-year-olds, tased! With 50,000 volts of electricity.” Misleading. Cincinnati police regulations already permit use of the X26 Taser, designed as a non-lethal weapon to incapacitate rather than kill, to subdue resisting suspects between the ages of 7 and 70. The ad refers to Cranley’s vote on the Cincinnati City Council against raising that age minimum to 10. The Council voted 5-4 against raising the age after opponents cited concerns that batons or pepper spray would be more likely to harm a resisting subject.
“Fixed ticket.” An Indiana ad includes a claim by a local prosecutor that Democratic challenger Brad Ellsworth tried to get his daughter’s speeding ticket “dismissed” because of his “position” as sheriff of an adjoining town. The ad includes an on-screen graphic that says, “Fixed Ticket.” False. The ticket was paid. The prosecutor alleging that Ellsworth sought special treatment is a Republican who broached the issue for the first time in mid-October, a year and a half after the fact, and who says he does not recall Ellsworth’s exact words. Ellsworth says he was seeking to get his daughter into an existing program that allowed first-time offenders to keep their driving records clean in return for paying higher fines. In any event, the prosecutor said his daughter did not qualify and the ticket stood.
Attack Ads Work
Both the NRCC and the DCCC are running negative ads because they believe they work. When the New York Times asked the NRCC’s Chairman Reynolds why he wasn’t running more positive ads, he burst out laughing. “If they [positive ads] moved things to the extent that negative ads move things, there would be more of them,” the Times quoted him as saying.
As we said earlier, negative ads can convey information that is useful to voters – provided they avoid distortion. Many of the NRCC’s ads fall well short of that standard.
– by Brooks Jackson, Viveca Novak, Justin Bank, James Ficaro and Emi Kolawole
Watch NRCC Ad: “Bad Call”
Watch NRCC Ad: “Bizarre”
Watch NRCC Ad: “Speeding Ticket”
Watch NRCC Ad: The Thinker”
Gary Craig, “Fighting for Rochester’s Future/Campaign 2003: DA foes grapple over ad on crime,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 31 Oct 2003.
Mark Weiner, “Sex-Call Spot is Called a New Low,” The Post-Standard, 21 Oct 2006.
“Ad Watch: Arcuri 1995 Rape Prosecution,” Observer-Dispatch. 12 Oct. 2006.
Kagen 4 Congress, “The Kagen Public Health Policy: Steve Kagen – On the Problems We Face Together,” Issue Brief, 2006 (PDF).
Nicole Duran, “Kagen, Target of NRCC Ad, Hits Back,” Roll Call. 14 Sept 2006.
Director of State Courts, “Guide to Small Claims Court,” Wisconsin Court System, July 2006. (PDF)
“Participating Physicians Directory,” US Department of Health & Human Services, Updated: 19 Oct. 2006.
Tim Whitmire, “Heath Shuler-Linked Firm Pays Back Taxes,” The Associated Press, 22 Sep 2006.
Gavin Lesnick, “Prosecutor, Ellsworth Spar,” Evansville Courier & Press, 15 Oct 2006.
Ryan Lenz, “GOP accuses Ellsworth of intervening in daughter’s traffic ticket,” Associated Press, 15 Oct 2006.
Greg Korte, “Cincinnati Council defeats Teaser ban on kids a 3rd time,”The Cincinatti Enquirer, 27 Jan 2005.
Kevin Osborne, “Council Locks 4-4 on Taser Limit,” The Cincinnati Post, 6 Jan 2005.
McNair, James. “Erpenbeck Bankers Hope for Mercy,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, 25 Jan. 2005.
Tom Duffy, “The enduring legend of McDonald’s coffee,” Lawyers Weekly USA, 22 Nov 2004.