RNC Invests Heavily in 'Issue' Attack AdsBy Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 1997; Page A01
The Republican National Committee, fighting to hold the House seat left vacant by the resignation of Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), has spent nearly $800,000 on "issue advocacy" ads that avoid mentioning the Republican candidate but attack the Democrat by name.
Under federal election law, the party is limited to spending $63,000 directly in support of congressional candidates. But issue advocacy advertising allows the GOP to far exceed those limits as long as the commercials do not take an explicit stance against or for a candidate. The technique was pioneered in the 1996 elections, when both parties spent millions on such advertisements that supposedly concentrated on issues but were in fact thinly disguised efforts to bolster their candidates.
Last week the Democrats came under heavy GOP criticism when the White House released videotapes from 1996 showing President Clinton telling donors that a multimillion-dollar ad campaign funded by the Democratic National Committee had substantially helped his reelection bid.
The RNC will likely spend more than either candidate has raised in the special election to fill New York's 13th Congressional District seat. Polls show Democrat Eric Vitaliano and Republican Vito Fossella in a virtual dead heat less than two weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
Fossella has spent about $85,000 on television and radio advertising, according to a campaign spokesman; Vitaliano has spent about $35,000, according to his spokesman.
The RNC ads, which began running yesterday on five New York City television stations, do not mention Fossella, a member of the New York City Council, or mention the election. But they do criticize Vitaliano, accusing him of voting for tax increases, as well as increases in welfare benefits and pay raises for members of the state Assembly, where Vitaliano has served for 15 years. The ads end by urging voters to call "Call Eric Vitaliano. Tell him to cut taxes, not take another bite out of our paychecks."
"The idea that these ads are issue ads, and not designed to influence the outcome of this House race, is a joke," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a public policy advocacy group. "This is the very kind of practice that the Clinton campaign has been correctly attacked for."
Democrats said they cannot afford to counter the GOP ad blitz in the only congressional race this year.
The seat has been held by a Republican for 17 years Molinari for the past seven years and her father, Guy V. Molinari, before her.
The outcome is critical to both parties, given the slim 11-member majority Republicans hold in the House.
Vitaliano and national and local Democratic officials accused the national GOP of trying to "buy" the House seat, vacated when Molinari resigned to take a job at CBS News in August.
Vitaliano, who has worked to portray himself as moderate to conservative, said the ads distort his record, most significantly by leaving out that he voted for a $4.5 billion tax cut, the largest in the state's history, a decade ago.
"I think it's really a good news-bad news thing for them," said Vitaliano. "I think there's going to be a negative reaction by the voters, who are going to resent [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich trying to buy this race."
RNC communications director Clifford May defended the tactic: "This is an issue advocacy ad. It's about an issue that the party cares about and has for a long time. In this case, it would be about the tax burden on working Americans."
However, May acknowledged that the RNC had not purchased similar ads aimed at any other candidate in New York or the rest of the country this year. He said the ads "certainly target one particular person who we see who has raised taxes and will raise taxes if he comes to a Congress next year."
May added that the RNC in part made its decision to buy the ads out of concern over the influence of organized labor, which has been organizing volunteers and helping raise money for Vitaliano.
Stephanie Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called the RNC's actions a "desperate attempt to prop up their candidate" after a poll last week showed Vitaliano with 35 percent to Fossella's 34 percent.
Staff writer Ruth Marcus contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company