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In Ohio, deluge of negative ads is wearing voters down

The accusations rain down on Cathy Wyatt throughout the day as she brews espresso drinks at Carpe Diem, a cozy downtown coffee shop inundated by sharp-toned political ads blaring from a television above the counter.

“You just have to tune them out, because if you believed any of them, every single person should be in jail,” Wyatt said with a weary chuckle. “There’d be nobody left to vote for.”

But ignoring political advertising is a tough feat in Ohio’s 16th Congressional District, which has seen one of the year’s biggest influxes of third-party campaign spending in House races as Republicans try to wrest the seat from Rep. John Boccieri, a freshman Democrat.

The prospects of GOP challenger Jim Renacci, a wealthy businessman, have been lifted by an estimated $1.5 million in TV ads expected to run on his behalf by groups with undisclosed donors such as 60 Plus, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the National Federation of Independent Business. But he’s also taken hits from labor unions and the League of Conservation Voters, which are expected to back Boccieri with $1.6 million in television spots, according to ad trackers monitoring the race.

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Spending like this is upending races around the country and has emerged as a fierce point of contention between candidates. The flood of outside money in this district — which exceeds what each candidate is spending on his own ads — also underscores Ohio’s role as a pivotal electoral battleground.

For 36 years, the 16th Congressional District was represented by Republican Ralph Regula, who retired in 2008. Boccieri, a major in the Air Force Reserve who served in the state Legislature, captured the seat for the Democrats that year.

“It’s been for months that we’ve been inundated,” said Jim Petro, 54, vice president of sales for a local manufacturing firm, as he and his wife, Carol, had a midmorning snack at Carpe Diem. “It just gets uglier and uglier.”

A day of watching television in Canton is like being dunked in an acid bath of political acrimony. Practically every commercial break is crammed with campaign ads, almost all decidedly negative.

Exactly who is financing the ads is unclear in many cases. Nonprofits such as the National Federation of Independent Business and the League of Conservation Voters do not have to reveal their donors, unless a contribution was given for a specific independent expenditure. Political spending by nonprofits has exploded this year since the Supreme Court decision that loosened campaign finance restrictions on corporations and unions.

The effect has been to deepen voters’ cynicism. Conversations with residents throughout Canton provided a glimpse of a harried and frustrated electorate, weighed down by the crush of negativity.

“I think the mute button is the best thing on the remote,” said Kevin O’Brien, 52, an independent voter who works as a funeral celebrant, as he perched behind a table at Muggswigz, a coffeehouse. “They all seem so incendiary and divisive that I just block them out.”

Still, the ads appear to be penetrating — voters can recite some of their key claims. But the negativity also appears to be having a boomerang effect on both candidates.

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The Petros, who identified themselves as Republican until 2008, when they switched parties and backed Barack Obama, decided to vote for Boccieri this year in part because of the ads Renacci and his allies have run against him.

“He’s not saying what he’ll do,” Jim Petro said. “He’s just blasting his opponent.”

Karen Wood, 68, an independent voter who supported Boccieri in 2008, had the opposite reaction after watching all the ads.

“I just don’t care for him,” said Wood of her congressman as she headed into the auditorium of GlenOak High School on Monday night for a debate between the two candidates. “I don’t care for all the smear campaigns against Renacci. Not that I like him either.”

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Wood added that she was particularly offended by the secrecy cloaking many of the groups.

“If you can’t stand up behind something, then shut your mouth,” she said.

The issue of outside spending dominated the 75-minute debate, with both Boccieri and Renacci casting themselves as victims.

Afterward, both sounded worn down by the assaults.

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“I have to say that we wake up every morning, just wondering where the next attack is coming from,” Boccieri said in an interview backstage. “Unfortunately, these outside groups are going to influence this election.”

For his part, Renacci said he did not comprehend what he was in for when he was warned to prepare for an onslaught of ugly ads.

“I didn’t really realize what that meant,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I do now. I think what it does is keep the good people out. I must admit there have been several times when I’ve thought, ‘Why would anybody put themselves through this?’ ”

matea.gold@latimes.com

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