WASHINGTON -- Sinister characters are scheming in a smoke-filled room, in a television ad that depicts big campaign contributors to Bob Casey, a Democrat running for Senate in Pennsylvania.
After detailing the legal troubles that each donor faces -- including an FBI investigation and jail time -- the somber narrator asks, “Where does Casey hold his campaign meetings?”
The camera pulls back to show the cigar-smoking “campaign team” -- behind bars.
That graphic, personal attack on the candidate challenging Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is a particularly sharp-edged example of a key strategy in the Republican political arsenal as the party fights to keep control of Congress: going negative and personal, early and often.
While President Bush and national GOP leaders are attacking Democrats on such big issues as national security and America’s role in the world, individual Republicans are hitting their opponents hard -- below the belt, some critics say -- on personal and local issues.
Negative campaigning is hardly new, and Democrats are dishing dirt against Republicans too. But mudslinging is crucial to the Republican plan for this year’s midterm elections, because the party’s hold on power will probably hinge on shifting attention from the unpopular war in Iraq and other national issues that cut against them.
“When people are looking at national issues that are not breaking our way, what you want to do is focus on your opponent,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former Republican National Committee chief of staff. “You’ve got to play the field’s conditions. They demand very tough tactics.”
Cole spelled out that approach in a recent strategy memo to House Republicans: “Define your opponent immediately and unrelentingly.... Do not let up -- keep the tough ads running right up to election day. Don’t make the mistake of pulling your ads in favor of a positive rotation the last weekend.”
Republican incumbents this year began running attack ads earlier than ever. But the hardest-hitting are yet to come.
“You haven’t seen the majority of the negative ads yet,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, where a staff of 10 has been deployed on opposition research.
The strategy rests on the widely held belief that negative political ads make more of an impression on voters than positive ones.
GOP consultant Terry Nelson said current voter cynicism may be particularly fertile ground for negative advertising because voters expect the worst from politicians.
“Voters are in some ways more ready to accept the negative about politicians” than the positive, Nelson said. “They often say they would like to see a more reasoned debate in campaigns and more talk about the ideas, but in fact they often respond to negative ads because they tend to find them more credible.”
Republican incumbents have moved aggressively to shape early perceptions of their Democratic challengers.
Democratic strategist Peter Fenn said: “You have a blackboard that’s not written on very much -- what Republicans are trying to do is write all over that blackboard in great big letters before the challengers have a chance to write on it.”
In one of the most competitive House races, Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) sent about a dozen mailings attacking Democrat Lois Murphy before Labor Day. He aired an ad in August portraying her as a fearsome liberal who wants to raise taxes. His latest ad accuses her of sending illegal campaign mailings, which she denies.
The National Republican Congressional Committee first took to the airwaves back in June. Its first television ad was against Brad Ellsworth, a Democratic sheriff who has mounted a strong challenge to Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.). The ad accused Ellsworth of neglecting his duties as sheriff because his department inadvertently released a suspected child rapist -- featured in a grainy mug shot -- while the Democrat was campaigning in Washington.
Also in Indiana, GOP Rep. Chris Chocola has been on the air for months hammering his Democratic opponent, lawyer and businessman Joe Donnelly. Chocola did not just use the standard GOP line of painting Donnelly as a tax-and-spend liberal; GOP researchers also combed through county tax records and found that Donnelly had been delinquent on his property taxes 15 times.
“Joe Donnelly wants to raise our taxes,” a Chocola TV ad said in August. “Even worse, he’s delinquent paying his own.”
In New Mexico, Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson tried to slow the early momentum of her Democratic challenger, state Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, with a tough negative ad. She attacked Madrid’s performance as the state’s top law officer at a time when corruption scandals spread through the state’s upper echelons.
Amy Walter, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said that ad helped shift the focus of the campaign from Democrats’ charges that Wilson is a rubber stamp for Bush, who is unpopular in the swing district.
“For Wilson, by going on the attack, the goal was to make the debate about the two candidates rather than a referendum on the current environment,” Walter said. “It succeeded in that.”
Madrid may have cut her losses by quickly fighting back with an ad not only defending herself but linking Wilson to resigned House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
It remains to be seen whether the GOP barrage will do lasting damage, especially since Madrid and other Democrats have made a concerted effort to respond aggressively. Ellsworth countered with an ad attacking Hostettler’s record on crime; Donnelly pointed out that Chocola was also once late in paying taxes; Murphy aired an ad challenging Gerlach’s claim to be independent of Bush.
Some political operatives say the impact of attack ads may be evident not in today’s polls but on election day. Evan Tracey, head of Campaign Media Analysis Group, said negative ads often depressed turnout among voters who might otherwise have supported the candidate under attack.
That underscores why attack ads may be particularly important to Republicans’ strategy: Many polls show that Democrats are generally more motivated than Republicans to vote this fall.
But the strategy carries risks: Some voters react badly to a candidate who is seen as smearing another unfairly.
“You’re surrounding yourself with live bombs and lighting fuses when you go down this road,” said Republican strategist Eddie Mahe Jr. “It is very, very risky.”
Some critics say Santorum risks backlash from his ad suggesting that Casey consorts with crooks. The ad uses actors to depict Casey donors, claiming that several are under investigation, one was charged with extortion and another was sentenced to two years in jail. No names are mentioned in the ad, but the Santorum campaign has produced a 70-page document to back up its claims about seven Casey contributors.
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., sees the ad as an effort to shake up the race because six weeks of positive ads about Santorum had failed to erase Casey’s lead in the polls.
“I think it’s over the top,” Madonna said. “I think it is unfair.”
He said the people in question -- whom the ad calls Casey’s “campaign team” -- donated to previous Casey campaigns but were not working on or contributing to his current campaign.
In fact, two of the seven have also donated to Santorum. One of the seven is dead. And though the ad puts the group behind bars, only one of the seven went to jail.
Santorum spokeswoman Virginia Davis said the ad provided important information about Casey at a time when polls showed that about a third of Pennsylvania voters still did not know enough about Casey to have an opinion about him.
“This ad is about character,” said Davis.
“It is important that voters know the kinds of people he is surrounding himself with.”