Candidates in the midterm elections unabashedly have attacked their opponents’ families in recent campaign ads, leaving political observers to decide where best to draw the line and putting those targeted on the defensive — with the fallout in one instance possibly costing the Democrats a Senate seat.
Republican strategist Jon Brabender said Wednesday the decision on whether to include an opponent’s family is pretty clear-cut.
“If a candidate writes legislation that benefits a family, then in that situation, it’s open game,” said Mr. Brabender, whose firm BrabenderCox has worked on media strategy with Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada. “If it’s just some family member doing something inappropriate, then it’s not relevant. I decide on a case-by-case basis, but it’s pretty clear what is in play and not in play.”
In Kentucky, Republican candidate Rand Paul took a recent TV ad by Democratic opponent Jack Conway that dredged up Mr. Paul’s college past and questioned his Christian beliefs, and turned it into an attack on his entire family.
“I hope you will leave my church, my family and religion out of it,” Mr. Paul told Mr. Conway in an ensuing debate.
A new poll shows Mr. Paul now with a double-digit lead over Mr. Conway, the state attorney general.
“There’s little doubt the ad has backfired,” said Tom Jensen, director the Public Polling Policy, the Democratic-leaning firm that shows Mr. Paul, an original “tea party” favorite, leading this week by 13 percentage points, compared with 7 points last month.
Mr. Conway subsequently saw his own family dragged into the fray. A Kentucky newspaper reported last week that his brother, Matthew, now an assistant commonwealth’s attorney, was tipped off twice by detectives about being involved in a criminal drug-trafficking probe and that Mr. Conway helped his brother get a lawyer. No charges have been filed.
In Illinois, where the Senate race is a dead heat, GOP candidate Rep. Mark Steven Kirk inflicted significant damage by connecting the Democratic candidate, Alexi Giannoulias, with his family’s failed bank, which he said made loans to “infamous mob figures.”
During a recent televised debate, Mr. Giannoulias, now the state treasurer, proudly defended his family and the now-bankrupt Broadway Bank.
“My father came to this country as an immigrant,” said Mr. Giannoulias, who was a loan officer. “He started a community bank 30 years ago. … And he’s helped thousands of people, thousands of people achieve the American dream.”
Still, he could not dispute such loans were made, saying only he was not aware of the “extent of that activity.”
Republican Linda McMahon’s connection to the professional wrestling business started by her husband’s family has been a major and repeated target by the campaign of Democratic candidate Richard Blumenthal in the U.S. Senate race in Connecticut.
One ad shows a wrestler pretending to smash a folding chair over the head of his opponent, then Mrs. McMahon, a former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive officer, standing in the ring hand-in-hand with husband and company founder Vince McMahon.
Mr. Blumenthal, the state’s attorney general, recently has been scrutinized about his family’s wealth, most of which comes from his wife, Cynthia, whose father was among the original partners in the Empire State Building.