2010 likely to bring more negative campaign ads than ever, analyst says

The Fix combed through the past 30 years of elections to find the campaigns that left winners and losers equally bruised.
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's getting ugly out there.

In Florida, Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek unveiled his first TV ad Monday, a disco-themed portrait of primary opponent Jeff Greene as a billionaire carpetbagger and Wall Street hustler who "helped to fuel the economic meltdown."

Brad Ellsworth also rolled out a "contrast" ad for his TV debut as a Democratic Senate candidate in Indiana. He skipped the traditional upbeat biographical sketch to take a swipe at "the bull" spouted by Washington special interests. "It's like they live and breathe the stuff," Ellsworth says against the backdrop of an abandoned factory. The message is not-so-subtly aimed at his opponent, former senator Dan Coats.

In some races, candidates aren't waiting to find out who their opponent will be before going for the jugular. With the Wisconsin GOP primary seven weeks away, Sen. Russell Feingold (D) is telling Wisconsin voters that front-runner Ron Johnson would "hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies." The Feingold ad shows a map of the United States and the shadow of an oil slick moving from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Michigan.

In each election cycle, the tone of campaign rhetoric seems to grow sharper and more personal. But a 2010 calendar front-loaded with contested primaries, combined with scores of vulnerable incumbents and both sides playing underdog, means there's an extra dash of hot sauce this year.

"We always say this is the most negative cycle, but 2010 probably will be it," said Evan Tracey, who tracks campaign ads for the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which is based in Northern Virginia. "The national issues are huge, and both parties hold the view that you have to blow up your opponent."

The general rule for congressional races is that the party out of power wages the more negative campaign -- which, for Republicans this year, is translating into an ad ratio of about 80 percent negative to 20 percent positive. That formula was borrowed from the Democrats' successful 2006 game plan.

But Democrats can't afford to stay positive, either, not with Obama's slumping popularity and voter opposition to the Democratic agenda. That's why Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) aired his first attack ad against Sharron Angle just three days after the tea party-backed candidate won the June 9 GOP primary. The Reid ad portrayed Angle as a mysterious fringe figure. "First a Scientology plan to give massages to prisoners. Now she wants to get rid of Medicare and Social Security. What's next?" the announcer asks.

"When we say we need to define the race and contrast with our opponent, that's what we have to do on the air and day to day in the campaign," said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "If we don't put this on the table, we are going to lose."

The large number of fiercely competitive primaries has helped set the negative tone. The next big showdown is Tuesday in Colorado, where Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff and Sen. Michael Bennet (D) released tit-for-tat ads this week taking aim at the other's fundraising. But their sniping is tame compared with the full-scale war between Republicans Jane Norton and Ken Buck.

Norton answered one broadside from an outside group with this zinger: "Seen those TV ads attacking me? They're paid for by a shady interest group doing the bidding of Ken Buck. You'd think Ken would be man enough to do it himself."

She followed that spot with a second ad last week of Buck speaking at a campaign rally: "Why should you vote for me?" Buck asks supporters. "Because I do not wear high heels."

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