Democrats increasingly going negative in midterm campaign ads

By T.W. Farnam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 5:40 PM

It's not the "Party of Hope" right now - many embattled Democrats have gone negative.

Rep. Harry E. Mitchell's (Ariz.) ads say his opponent is "a predatory real estate speculator" who is "hurting us, helping himself." Rep. Ron Klein's (Fla.) say his challenger has "a consistent lack of personal responsibility" and "the wrong values for South Florida." Democrat Dick Blumenthal, running for Senate in Connecticut, charges his opponent "puts profits before people" and sought to avoid health inspections for her employees. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (Nev.) say his opponent is "reckless, radical and extreme."

Many Democratic candidates, faced with running on accomplishments that haven't been embraced by voters, are using a tested, if unsavory, tactic: attacking their opponents' character, according to data provided by a new study. The strategy of these Democrats is to turn the election from a referendum on their record into a choice - one where the other side is "too extreme," a label that has become a common refrain in TV ads across the country.

An analysis of advertising by the Wesleyan Media Project shows that Democratic candidates are running a higher percentage of negative ads and they are more likely to go after their opponents' personal characteristics instead of their policy positions.

"Republicans are substantively more policy-focused," said Michael Franz, a professor at Bowdoin College who worked on the study. "The policy environment really isn't favorable to Democrats. Trying to run on that record just isn't going to play that well."

Data collected by the project show that 29 percent of Democratic House and Senate candidates' ads are negative, up from 13 percent in 2008. By comparison, Republicans' share of attack ads has dropped from 28 percent to 21 percent. Further, 35 percent of the negative ads run by Democrats are focused exclusively on policy. By contrast, Republicans were focused exclusively on policy 57 percent of the time.

The data show that Republican candidates have been able to run more positive ads because they've received help from parties and outside groups that are attacking on their behalf. Once outside spending by parties and interest groups are factored in to the candidate spending, both liberals and conservatives are running the same share of negative ads. Ads on the left are still more focused on personal characteristics over policy, however.

"The Democrats have essentially become a message-less party," said Ken Spain, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP's House-race arm. "They can't run on their record of job creation or fiscal responsibility, so instead they have resorted to character assassination."

Democrats say their ads focus on personal characteristics because Republican candidates this year are especially flawed. Many of them, including many Senate nominees like Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada, were able to win primaries against more conventional politicians with the help of backing from the tea party.

"The public needs to know of these fatally flawed candidates' disturbing history of dangerous rhetoric and extremist views," Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for Democrats' House-race committee, said. "It's hardly surprising Republicans wouldn't want the facts to come out."

In rural Tennessee, Rep. Lincoln Davis, a Democrat hoping to hold on to his highly conservative district this fall, is running an ad that quotes documents from his opponent's divorce case 10 years ago.

"Court documents reveal Scott DesJarlais has a history of attacks: violent and threatening behavior toward his first wife, firing an unloaded gun outside her bedroom door, putting the gun in his own mouth for three hours," the ad intones in a stern, echoing voice over music fit for a sci-fi movie. "It's documented. It's disturbing."

Anyone just viewing that ad would never know that the allegations came from his ex-wife, who was trying to get control of the couple's house when she made the charges. Or that a judge granted DesJarlais his guns and joint custody of the couple's son.

A DesJarlais campaign spokesman said the ad's charges have "no merit." Davis's campaign says the ad on the divorce records was "in bounds" and pointed to more episodes from DesJarlais's past, including a police report following an encounter between the estranged couple.

"The Republicans have recruited some candidates who have just been disastrous in their personal life," said John Rowley, a media consultant to the Davis campaign. "It's almost like daytime television."

The DesJarlais campaign says the ad hasn't worked anyway. "The Democrats and Lincoln Davis attempted to throw a Hail Mary with this ad, but it has fallen woefully short," said Brent Leatherwood, DesJarlais's campaign manager. "Americans are disgusted with the negative personal attacks Democrats are using and these efforts are backfiring here in Tennessee."

Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway (D) has used details of a college prank in an ad against Paul, an optometrist and son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).

"Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his god was 'Aqua Buddha'?" the ad says while showing an unflattering picture of the Republican. "Why are there so many questions about Rand Paul?"

The Paul campaign said in a statement, "When a candidate becomes desperate enough to question his opponent's religious beliefs, they denigrate the entire process and ultimately do a major disservice to voters. It's really disappointing to everyone in Kentucky that the moment Jack Conway realized he couldn't win on the issues he decided to engage in outrageous character assassination and smear tactics."

The ad got national attention for its aggressiveness, but it may not have helped Conway much. In a recent poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, 56 percent of voters who saw the ad said they think it was inappropriate, including 41 percent of Democrats. Only 7 percent of independents thought it was appropriate.

To be sure, Republicans have also had their share of hard-hitting negative ads. The Senate matchup in Illinois between Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R) and state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) has been one of the most negative on both sides.

"At his father's bank, Alexi Giannoulias made tens of millions in risky loans to convicted mobsters," a Kirk ad says. "Trust him with your money?"

The Giannoulias campaign has made hay about Kirk's false statements on his military record. "What's worse than the lies Congressman Mark Kirk said about himself?" an ad asks. "The truth about what Kirk's done - to us."

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