Democrats digging harder than ever for dirt on Republicans

The Fix combed through the past 30 years of elections to find the campaigns that left winners and losers equally bruised.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Democratic Party is moving faster and more aggressively than in previous election years to dig up unflattering details about Republican challengers. In House races from New Jersey to Ohio to California, Democratic operatives are seizing on evidence of GOP candidates' unpaid income taxes, property tax breaks and ties to financial firms that received taxpayer bailout money.

In recent weeks, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has circulated information to local reporters about Republican candidates in close races. Among the claims:

-- That Jim Renacci of Ohio once owed nearly $1.4 million in unpaid state taxes.

-- That David Harmer of California received $160,000 in bonus and severance pay from a firm that got a federal bailout.

-- That Jon Runyan of New Jersey got a legal break in property taxes for his 25-acre homestead by qualifying for a farmland assessment thanks to his four donkeys.

Renacci's campaign said the candidate did not believe he had tax liabilities for a trust fund and eventually paid all that he owed. A spokesman for Harmer said criticizing him for the money he lawfully earned is a "severe twist of the facts." Runyan's campaign said his actions were legal.

Jon Vogel, executive director of the DCCC, said Democrats are merely pointing out that some Republican recruits in competitive House races are "flawed candidates."

He added, "We have made this election a choice. . . . They're trying to run this national message in part about fiscal discipline, but they've recruited a number of candidates not credible to carry that message."

Opposition research has been a part of political campaigns for decades, but the 2010 cycle is different. In many states, Republicans have steered clear of candidates with long political track records -- eschewing state representatives and veteran city council members who have cast thousands of votes ripe for scrutiny -- in favor of political outsiders. The top GOP recruits include several former professional sports stars, as well as doctors and businessmen.

Democratic leaders are trying to frame the November midterm elections not as a national referendum on the party in power but as local choices between two candidates.

"We can win the contrast, but not the referendum," Democratic strategist Steve Murphy said. "What is critical in this election cycle is for Democratic candidates to hold Republican candidates accountable for their views."

Republicans see the Democrats' strategy as a sign of weakness.

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