The closing weeks of a campaign are always dirty. But Democrats, trying to fend off a GOP tidal wave, are resorting to highly personal attacks. Plus, get the latest midterm predictions from the Election Oracle.
If the Republicans have their way, the election will turn on whether Democrats are the party of runaway government.
Now, with time running out, the Democratic Party is fighting back—and not just by trying to brand many GOP candidates as extremists. The new line is that they’re sleazebags.
We’re talking ugly stuff here, accusing one opponent of threatening his wife, another of indifference to employee deaths, a third of trying to evict a child.
An onslaught of negative ads has become standard procedure for both parties, with the most incendiary fare held in reserve until the final days.
Republicans have run some highly personal ads on immigration, with a Sharron Angle commercial, for instance, proclaiming that Harry Reid is the “best friend an illegal alien ever had.” ( Angle and Reid are neck-in-neck, according to the Election Oracle.)
But the unmistakable theme of this eleventh-hour blitz by Democratic Party committees is that the Republican contenders are unethical and untrustworthy business types. While President Obama accuses the opposition of wanting to lurch backwards to the Bush years, Democratic strategists—those in the trenches—are playing a rougher game.
“The party is doing stuff that is too hot for candidates,” says Evan Tracey, who tracks television advertising as president of the nonpartisan Campaign Media Analysis Group. “You see ad after ad going at them right between the eyes. It’s personal, it’s cutting. It’s ‘here’s what we found in the oppo dump and we’re going to put it in the worst light possible.’”
The allegations, often based on selective use of facts, are fair game. But they also represent the kind of scorched-earth tactics that strategists employ when their clients are in danger of losing, and losing big. The party is spending heavily on these aerial attacks.
“We’ve always said this election has to be a contrast, that it cannot just be an up-or-down vote on Democrats,” says Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We believe what Republicans did before entering politics, or before 2012, should be part of the conversation.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, not surprisingly, says it’s not working. The Democrats, says spokesman Brian Walsh, “have come to the conclusion they can scare voters by trying to marginalize the candidates personally. Harry Reid spent $6 million in attack ads against Sharron Angle, trying to demonize her,” and yet the Nevada Republican remains competitive.
No one would call the commercials subtle. Take the 30-second spot against Linda McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment chief running for a Senate seat in Connecticut. The commercial offers “the real story: Her company violated safety standards. Was criticized for tolerating steroid and drug use. Inserted death clauses in workers’ contracts in order to avoid responsibility for their deaths. ( McMahon has a 40 percent chance of winning, according to the Election Oracle.)
The record: 17 of her former workers under age 50 have died.”
Newspaper citations flash on the screen to buttress the parade of horribles. A congressional investigation found “pervasive” steroid use by wrestlers employed by McMahon’s outfit. The Hartford Courant says four of the seven former WWE wrestlers who have died since March 2009 had either battled drug addiction or were found after death to have prescription narcotics in their blood.
The assault doesn’t stop there; another spot labels McMahon a “bad CEO” who laid off workers while taking “millions in bonuses.”
McMahon spokesman Ed Patru told me the WWE doesn’t tolerate steroid use and offers wrestlers a chance at rehabilitation if they attempt to come clean. Patru said he believes the correct figure on WWE deaths is 11 and that these include suicides and men only briefly affiliated with the company: “One death is too many, but it's unfair to suggest that WWE is responsible for all 11 of these deaths, particularly given the facts surrounding these deaths.”
Ken Buck, running for the Senate in Colorado, “was rebuked for professional misconduct. Left the Justice Department under a cloud. Buck gave inside information to lawyers for an illegal gun dealer. Then the dealer donated money to Buck’s campaign. The official reprimand said Buck showed reckless disregard for his obligations. And Buck was ordered to attend ethics class.”
Buck resigned as a federal prosecutor a decade ago after badmouthing a felony case to defense attorneys representing gun dealers. The U.S. attorney said he had engaged in “reckless disregard of your obligation … to keep client information confidential,” but Buck maintains that such conversations with defense lawyers were common.
John Raese, the West Virginia Senate candidate who is chief executive of a steel producer, is portrayed as a heartless tycoon. “How could he not pay workers’ comp?” a DSCC commercial asks. “Eliminate the minimum wage? …John Raese’s job is CEO. So for him, maybe jobs are just another line on a spreadsheet.” Raese opposes the federal minimum wage. His company, Greer Industries, was one of nearly 1,000 utilizing a program in 1999 that granted amnesty to firms behind on their workers’ compensation premiums.
But this is pattycake compared to the way the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted Scott DesJarlais, a House candidate in Tennessee. “Long-buried court documents reveal a deeply disturbing past,” says an ominous-sounding narrator. “A wife who claims she was forced from her home by DesJarlais’ violent and threatening behavior. In the court motion, sordid details: dry-firing a gun, physical intimidation, holding a gun in his mouth for three hours.”
The gory details are drawn from a decade-old divorce case. DesJarlais told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that spouses often say hurtful things in such proceedings and that he has no “ history of violent, threatening behavior.”
The same Democratic committee uses footage of a vulture to depict the real estate practices of Arizona House candidate David Schweikert. “The housing market crushing families, but David Schweikert sees profit in your pain,” the spot begins. “Schweikert ran a vulture investment scheme that speculated on foreclosed valley homes. Violated city property code. Even accused of serving an eviction notice to a 12-year-old.”
Schweikert’s company buys and manages foreclosed properties; the Arizona Republic found that while some details are in dispute, Schweikert didn’t personally serve the family in question an eviction notice.
No Democratic attack strategy would be complete without unloading on Christine O’Donnell. The party ad doesn’t waste time with the Delaware candidate’s views on witchcraft or masturbation:
“She was sued for not paying her bills. Didn’t pay her taxes. Has a federal complaint filed against her for spending campaign funds on herself.” All true—a line of attack that O’Donnell has tried to neutralize by saying “I’m you”—an ordinary person with ordinary problems.
O’Donnell is badly trailing Democrat Chris Coons, so the party may have popped her just for kicks.
Of course, the Democratic spots are being overwhelmed by Republican-aligned independent groups unleashing a tidal wave of advertising, in many cases without legally having to disclose who is financing them. But they provide a window into how the party hopes to hang onto its majority.
“You can’t talk about all the great things you’ve done in Washington when everyone hates Washington,” Tracey says. “The Democrats have to basically disqualify their challengers.”
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.