?Over the weekend, Steve Greenberg turned on his TV to watch college basketball and was treated to something that’s become unavoidable in his part of the country: a new ad for the special election in New York’s 20th Congressional District. This one was attacking Scott Murphy, the venture capitalist nominated by the Democratic, Independence, and Working Families parties to replace now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
“Scott Murphy bragged he created thousands of jobs,” said a female narrator, in a tone of voice that made her sound like Murphy’s disappointed homeroom teacher. “But just not here in New York. He created jobs in India. And just like the rest of Wall Street, Murphy paid big bonuses to executives while working people struggle to get by.”
Image by: Matt Mahurin
The National Republican Trust PAC, a well-heeled Washington, D.C.-based political group, has spent $190,000 to put that ad on the air. But according to the non-partisan Siena Research Institute, for whom Greenberg is a spokesman, negative ads against Murphy are not paying dividends. According to the Siena Poll released on March 12, Murphy has closed a double-digit gap and is now just four points behind Republican candidate Jim Tedisco. Only 12 percent of voters said the ads they saw for Tedisco made them more likely to support the Republican, to 28 percent who said they became less likely to support him.
Voters may be blaming Tedisco for a campaign he isn’t running. “It is really hard for voters,” said Greenberg, “outside of guys like me who pay attention to this stuff, to discern between an ad for Murphy or an ad by the national Democrats, an ad by Tedisco or an ad by someone who supports Tedisco.”
Republicans are looking for signs of hope from the race in NY-20, a sprawling, rural district that covers much of the Hudson Valley. The election is not just a chance to add to the diminished Republican ranks in the House, but also an opportunity to break through the media clutter and start talking about a political comeback. Last month, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele called the race a “battle royale” that could give the party a crucial win. But last week, as polls showed the race tightening, Tedisco announced that he was “taking over” his campaign and ditching negative ads. It was seen as a rejection of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s strategy of attacks on Murphy’s business record
Neither the NRCC nor outside groups such as the National Republican Trust are paying much heed to Tedisco. NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said that the committee had an “obligation” to educate voters about Murphy. Strategists for two independent groups that are running controversial anti-Murphy ads in NY-20 say they’re doing what conservatives want as the mealy-mouthed national party falters. The two PACs weighing in for Tedisco – the National Republican Trust and Our Country Deserves Better PAC – allow conservative donors to fund red meat attacks from less-experienced political operators.
“We don’t talk to the Tedisco campaign,” said Scott Wheeler, the executive director of the National Republican Trust PAC. “It’s our job to expose Scott Murphy. He is the poster boy for Democrat Party hypocrisy that has, for far too long, been allowed to go unchecked.”
“I believe what I say,” Wheeler said. “That’s why some political insiders describe me as a wingnut.”
His National Republican Trust PAC has been stunningly successful in garnering money and attention for TV ads that attack candidates on points that Republican campaigns won’t touch. It was launched in September 2008 by Wheeler, a journalist who worked at the conservative Cybercast News Service, and Peter Leitner, a national security consultant who worked for the Reagan administration. Neither had worked in politics before, but they rented mailing lists and appealed to conservative donors for an ad that told voters about what they said were Barack Obama’s plans to give Social Security benefits and drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. In the final weekend of 2008 presidential campaign, the National Republican Trust PAC spent $2.5 million on prime-time, broadcast TV ads that played portions of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons while telling viewers that Obama “had never complained once” about Wright.
By the end of the 2008 campaign the National Republican Trust PAC had spent $8.14 million against Obama and $633,000 in the runoff for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat. Wheeler and Leitner point to that second campaign as proof of their success in pushing bold, harsh messages that party committees blanch at. Fox News pundit Dick Morris, whose Triangulation Strategies was paid $27,000 by the National Republican Trust PAC before the Georgia runoff, has praised the group publicly and lent his name to its fundraising e-mails. This has financed an aggressive campaign that, according to Wheeler and Leitner, is exposing politicians whom the mainstream media gives a pass. According to Leitner, one example of media failure — and why the National Republican Trust PAC needs to do its work — is the lack of investigation into whether Obama is an American citizen. (Most media outlets have been satisfied with a Hawaiian certificate of live birth that the Obama campaign made public last summer.)
“The media has really failed in its function as a Fourth Estate,” explained Leitner. “The documentation about Obama’s basic eligibility for the presidency needs to be seen, if he wants to put the issue to rest once and for all.”
“It’s not just about the birth certificate,” Leitner continued. “There are some other documents that should exist — for example, the declaration his mother made when she came back into U.S. after living in Indonesia. Was she accompanied by an infant? Was she pregnant at the time? Was she traveling with a minor? This is normal government record keeping, and it would be revealed by anyone who had nothing to hide.”
Our Country Deserves Better PAC, which is based in California and headed by frequent Republican candidate and former state Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, lacks the funding of the National Republican Trust PAC. At the start of 2009, it had only $140,000 in the bank to the National Republican Trust PAC’s $1.9 million. But its strategists share Wheeler and Leitner’s view of the mainstream media and of the muddled messaging of the Republican Party.
“We created the PAC last year because there was a widespread feeling that the McCain campaign did not have its act together,” said Our Country Deserves Better PAC chief strategist Sal Russo. “It did not have a clear message. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell haven’t emerged as big leaders. Michael Steele has a lot of promise, but he got off to a bad start.”
Like the National Republican Trust PAC, Kaloogian and Russo’s group ran a Jeremiah Wright ad because the John McCain campaign wouldn’t touch the issue. Like the larger PAC, it has dropped ads into NY-20 that touch on issues Tedisco will no longer talk about, such as an article Murphy co-wrote in college that argued for keeping the ROTC off campus, and tax liens placed against a business Murphy founded. The ads began running in early March, when the NRCC was running with the same material, and when Tedisco had no objection to the NRCC’s campaign. Since then, Murphy has risen in the polls.
Fewer people in NY-20 have seen Our Country Deserves Better PAC’s ads than have seen most other commercials in the district — the group’s first buy, in early March, was only $9,490. But the presence of both groups in the district is cutting against the Republican candidate’s message.
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