Sometimes you have to play rough to win...
For all the rhetoric in campaign kickoffs about running on issues, sometimes a well-executed attack is what finishes a race. Fact-based claims that strike a chord with voters can strike a fatal blow in a close campaign.
Political attacks are almost as old as our Democracy but are nearly inescapable with modern mass media. In 1800, Federalists wrote that “murder, rape, adultery, and incest” would follow Thomas Jefferson into power; his supporters fired back that John Adams was “one continued tempest of malignant passions.” Attacks jumped onto television in 1964, with LBJ’s “Daisy” ad—which ran just once but helped sink Barry Goldwater. Even in 2008, the year of “hope,” plenty of mud was slung. “Campaigns have been getting really dirty for years,” says political science professor Kerwin Swint, and the fast approaching midterm elections could follow right along. “2010 is going to be right up there with the dirtiest of the last 20 years,” Swint says.
We’ve rounded up a few of this century’s toughest finishing moves so you can see what works—and what doesn’t. Be prepared: you may have to play rough to win.
The Ones That Worked
The Ones That Didn't Work
The Ones That Worked
PLAYING OFFENSE ABOUT DEFENSE
The Race: U.S. Senate, Georgia, 2002: Saxby Chambliss (R) vs. Max Cleland (D)
The Situation: Sen. Max Cleland, a Democrat in an increasingly red state, was a favorite for reelection, thanks to his moderate voting record and military career—he is a decorated veteran, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. Rep. Saxby Chambliss joined the race after redistricting weakened his chances for a fifth term in the U.S. House.
The Move: Cleland and the Senate Democrats had stalled President Bush’s creation of the Homeland Security department because they were fighting provisions that were considered anti-union. Cleland, who supported creating DHS, voted against the president 11 times on amendments and gave the Chambliss campaign an opening.
In October, Chambliss’ team struck with an ad called “Courage.” Beginning with images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and then cutting to Cleland, the ad aimed to move perceptions of the senator from war hero to terrorist sympathizer. “Max Cleland says he has the courage to lead,” the narrator says, “but the record proves Max Cleland is just misleading.”
The Result: Despite widespread condemnation of the ad—from Cleland and from Republicans like Sens. John McCain and Chuck Hagel—Georgia voters soured on Cleland, worrying he might be more concerned with unions than homeland security. The Chambliss campaign picked up a ton of free airtime from the ensuing media frenzy. “In all honesty this ad should have been maybe a 1,200 to 1,500 point [jump in] ad rating points,” said Tom Perdue, a consultant for the Chambliss campaign who wrote the ad. “Cleland, he made the ad be what it turned out to be.” It threw Cleland irrecoverably off message. He couldn’t make the case why he had voted against the president, and the campaign derailed into a fight over the degree to which the ad was or was not offensive.
Perdue said he was “floored” by the response, but stands by its content. “What brainless fool would challenge a man’s patriotism that was a triple amputee from Vietnam?” Perdue asked. “We were challenging his integrity.” And, in this election, it worked. Chambliss won 53 to 46 percent. “The campaign changed, then money started coming in even more. It gave Saxby a great burst of confidence,” he says. “It demoralized the Cleland folks because they couldn’t answer the question.”
A CONTROVERSIAL CALL
The Race: U.S. Senate, Tennessee, 2006: Harold Ford (D) vs. Bob Corker (R)
The Situation: The contest between Bob Corker and Harold Ford for Tennessee’s open Senate seat was too close to call as the end of October neared. A Zogby poll from the last week of October gave Corker a one-point lead. A Rasmussen poll three days later had Corker up just two.
The Move: With less than two weeks before Election Day, the Republican National Committee financed one of the most controversial ads of the cycle. The spot ripped Ford for attending a party sponsored by Playboy magazine. A white actress playing the part of a woman claiming she met Ford, who is black, at the party says suggestively, “Harold, call me.” The furor over the spot was immediate. Many in the press and in political circles called the ad racist—the NAACP claimed it played on “pre-existing prejudices about African-American men and white women.” The Corker campaign denounced it, asking the RNC to take the spot down.
The Result: Debate over whether or not the ad worked is as heated as the criticism the spot garnered. “That ad almost killed us,” claims Fred Davis, Corker’s media consultant on that race. “We went to incredible lengths to make [Corker] very credible, which he is. And then all of a sudden the RNC put that ad out. I just think that was so over the top and so unbelievable.” The ad ran for a critical two-week period at the end of the campaign, when Corker appeared to seize a commanding lead in polls. “At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue that ad didn’t have a serious negative impact on Ford,” says a former RNC official who would only speak about the ad anonymously. A CNN poll released Oct. 29 gave Corker an 8-point lead. Two days later, a Zogby/Reuters poll had Corker up 10. Corker won the race with 51 percent of the vote to Ford’s 48 percent.
FATHER KNOWS BEST
The Race: U.S. House, PA-10, 2006: Chris Carney (D) vs. Don Sherwood (R)
The Situation: In one of the tightest and most-watched congressional races of the ’06 cycle, challenger Chris Carney looked poised to oust longtime GOP incumbent Rep. Don Sherwood. But heading into the stretch run, polls showed the race tight with Sherwood clinging to the advantages of incumbency in a Republican district where approval of President Bush was still near 50 percent.
The Move: In a year highlighted by Republican scandals, the cloud hanging over Don Sherwood was a menacing one. The previous April, news broke about a 29-year-old woman who alleged Sherwood hit and choked her at his Capitol Hill apartment. Sherwood’s explanation: He was giving the woman a “backrub.” After weeks of attacking Sherwood indirectly—the Carney campaign ran ads with buzzwords like “values” and “character”—his opponent went for the knockout. In late September, the Carney camp went up with a 30-second spot entitled “Father.” The ad featured a former Sherwood supporter holding a picture of his 26-year-old stepdaughter who asked, “How can I tell her I support Don Sherwood and feel good about myself?”
“The race was moving in our direction already,” says Andrew Eldridge-Martin, Carney’s campaign manager that year. “But we knew we had to make this case.” The campaign followed that one up with a second spot that featured a series of man-on-the-street interviews questioning Sherwood’s character.
The Result: Shortly after the Carney campaign hit Sherwood head on with the allegations leveled against him, Carney pulled out to a solid lead. “We had one poll that had us up 15 points,” Eldridge-Martin recalls. It was a cushion the campaign would need as the race tightened again down the stretch. A campaign visit from President Bush in the closing days helped Sherwood regain some footing, but on election night Carney squeaked out a win—53 to 47 percent.
THE SILVER BULLET
The Race: Illinois Senate, 92nd District, 2008: Jehan Gordon (D) vs. Joan Krupa (R)
The Situation: Democrat Jehan Gordon came into the race to replace rising Republican star Aaron Schock in an unenviable position. In addition to running in a largely Republican district, Gordon faced some serious negatives. First, she had a shoplifting arrest on her record. Second, her resume falsely claimed graduation from the University of Illinois. And third, her attendance record on a local school board was less than stellar. On top if it all, she was facing an older, well-known and likeable Republican opponent in Joan Krupa. When Gordon brought in Democratic media firm Devine Mulvey, the campaign went to work remaking her image. The campaign started with a spot where Gordon admitted her “past mistakes.” Gordon then hit Krupa on the one real negative the campaign had on her: Krupa had voted to raise taxes and fees 11 times during her tenure as state Representative. Julian Mulvey, one of Gordon’s top strategists, says the attack caught Krupa’s campaign flatfooted and it hit back hard—but that’s exactly what the Gordon campaign was waiting for.
The Move: Gordon’s team had a silver bullet in the form of a letter from its opponent. Shortly after Gordon’s primary victory, Krupa sent her a handwritten letter promising to never attack her “personally or professionally.” When the Krupa campaign responded to Gordon’s attack on taxes, it went with an attack ad of its own that labeled Gordon a crook and a liar. The money shot was Gordon’s picture alongside that of former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich: “We have enough people of bad character in Springfield,” the ad intoned. “We don’t need another.” Gordon hit back with an ad that featured Krupa’s letter and said Krupa couldn’t be trusted. The tag line: “Promises you can’t trust, even in writing.” The Result: The ad, launched in the last week of the race, was enough to give a candidacy that once seemed impossible, a narrow victory. “That was the closing ad,” says Mulvey, “and it probably swung the race a good 8 or 10 points.”
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The Ones That Didn't Work
FIREWORKS ON THE RADIO
The Race: U.S. House, NY-1, 2002: Timothy Bishop (D) vs. Felix Grucci Jr. (R)
The Situation: President Bush started 2002 with a 70-percent approval rating, an indication the midterm elections would likely favor Republicans. In New York’s Republican- leaning 1st Congressional District, freshman Rep. Felix Grucci appeared in for an easy reelection. But political rookie Timothy Bishop, a former provost of Southampton College, mounted a surprisingly strong challenge.
The Move: Grucci unleashed a radio ad accusing Bishop of “tuning his back on rape victims” by altering rape statistics when he was at Southampton College.
The Result: Catastrophe. The attack was based on discredited college newspaper stories that were later pulled due to errors. Still, the Grucci campaign didn’t acknowledge its mistake and apologize. “At the end of the day, it was definitely the difference maker in that race,” says Jon Schneider who worked on the Grucci campaign. “It changed the game because what it did was it put a tremendous spotlight on this race.”
National Democrats counterattacked with ads of their own, and the New York papers ran away with the story. “Once the ad blew up, you saw national groups getting involved,” Schneider says. “By the end, both sides were advertising on New York City TV—that’s a million dollars a week for a moderate ad buy.” Bishop won with 50 percent of the vote to Grucci’s 49 percent.
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THE WRONG KIND OF AD
The Race: U.S. House, WI-3, 2006: Ron Kind (D) vs. Paul Nelson (R)
The Situation: When your campaign is a long shot, there comes a time to just heave it up and pray you complete the Hail Mary pass. In 2006, Republican Paul Nelson was in serious need of a game-changer. His opponent, Ron Kind, had all the powers of incumbency, and was well-funded in his bid for a sixth term.
The Move: In mid-October, Nelson launched an attack ad that went after Kind for voting in favor of funding a series of National Institute of Health research grants, which, among other things, were aimed at “slowing the spread of AIDS, understanding homosexuality and improving the lives of senior citizens as their sexual function declines.” The ad’s spin: “Ron Kind has no trouble spending your money, he’d just rather spend it on sex,” as the voice-over put it. “Instead of spending money on cancer research, Ron Kind voted to spend your money to study the sex lives of Vietnamese prostitutes,” the ad continued. “Instead of spending money to study heart disease, Ron Kind spent your money to study the masturbation habits of old men.” And if that wasn’t bad enough, “Ron Kind even spent your tax dollars to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia. Ron Kind pays for sex but not for soldiers.”
The Result: Nelson’s game-changing attempt fell woefully short, and the attack’s over-the-top presentation provoked an outcry from both Republicans and Democrats. “Our initial reaction was shock,” says Matt Sweeney, Kind’s campaign manager. The executive director of Wisconsin’s GOP personally phoned Sweeney to denounce the ad, but the Nelson campaign stood by the spot. It became the centerpiece of Nelson’s campaign web site, where he bragged that TV stations and the media were afraid to air it. “In the end it helped our fundraising efforts,” says Sweeney. “We were getting money from all over the country after that ad ran.” On Election Day, Kind scored a 30-point victory.
THE RACE CARD: A LOSING HAND
The Race: U.S. House, TN-9 Democratic Primary, 2008: Nikki Tinker vs. Steve Cohen
The Situation: In the 2006 primary to fill Harold Ford’s empty seat, Steve Cohen struggled with fundraising, but the longtime state senator had enough name recognition to win the Democratic primary over Nikki Tinker, a former aide to Ford. Cohen, who is Jewish, went to Washington to represent the 9th District, which is nearly 60 percent African-American, becoming one of just two white Congressmen representing majority black districts. Two years later, Tinker, who is black, came back for a rematch.
The Move: Early in the race, a local minister distributed fliers asking “Why Do Steve Cohen and the Jews Hate Jesus?” Tinker denounced the fliers only after much criticism. A week before the primary, Tinker linked Cohen to the KKK in an ad criticizing his vote not to remove the remains of the group’s founder from a local park. Just days later another Tinker ad scolded Cohen for coming to “our churches, clapping his hands and stomping his feet” while voting against school prayer.
The Result: Local and national newspapers—even Barack Obama—denounced what were labeled “race-baiting” and “Jew-baiting” ads, but Tinker defended them as fact-based. Cohen won in a 60-point landslide, and Tinker earned a lower percentage than she had in 2006’s crowded race. “It was repugnant,” says Cohen. “I think it was a move of desperation, but they also thought it would work.”