- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In the partisan wrestling matches that have come to characterize this year’s midterm elections, the takedown has become the move of choice.

Attack ads are nothing new in American politics, but the record-setting sums spent on campaign advertising this election cycle have also produced a bumper crop of candidates demanding that ads be taken down and removed from the airwaves because of distorted, questionable or outright false facts and statements.

Most of the challenged attack ads have targeted Republican candidates, and the number has increased in the past few weeks as the end of the primaries cleared the way for one-on-one races and early voting.

At least five candidates have demanded that their general-election opponent stop airing an attack ad.

Last week, Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., Maryland Democrat, said Republican challenger Andy Harris supports a plan to increase federal sales taxes to 23 percent.

“Can you imagine paying a 23 percent sales tax on everything you buy?” the ad asks voters. “That’s in Andy Harris‘ unfair tax plan.”

The nonpartisan group Factcheck.org has called that line of attack on Republican candidates misleading because it fails to state that the so-called “fair tax” plan endorsed by Mr. Harris also would repeal the federal income tax. Several Maryland press outlets have also questioned the ad’s accuracy.

The Kratovil campaign has responded by slightly revamping the ad and using it as a bargaining chip in negotiations for a candidates debate.

Such a response is not surprising and usually a good strategy, said Factcheck.org Director Brooks Jackson.

“These claims about scurrilously false ads and complaints to the Federal Election Commission never come to anything,” he said. “It’s empty bluster. I see this every election cycle.”

Some candidates have had success in getting ads corrected or temporarily removed, but no one appears to have achieved a clean takedown.

Attorneys for Meg Whitman — the GOP candidate for California governor — this month got a Bay Area TV station and the state’s Comcast cable system to stop running an ad in which the former eBay executive is falsely portrayed as saying the state should cut billions of dollars more from its public school system.

However, the teachers union that sponsored the ad made a few fixes and had the ad back on TV within days.

Missouri’s race for an open Senate seat is proving to be among the nastiest of the cycle. At least three attack ads have led to demands from the other side that broadcasters not run them.

Rep. Roy Blunt, the Republican nominee, recently tried to remove a questionable TV ad by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee claiming that he was going to build a home on a million-dollar Washington property. But the ad continued to run as attorneys on both sides argued over who owned the property and whether commissioning a set of architect plans meant the Blunt family intended to build on the property.

“The whole ad was based on a lie and [was] a deliberate attempt to deceive Missouri voters,” said Blunt spokesman Rich Chrismer.

Mr. Blunt had more success last month when he got at least two radio stations to delay airing an ad by union supporters of Democratic opponent and Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan long enough to have company attorneys conduct a review.

Mr. Jackson said getting a TV or radio station to remove an ad is nearly impossible, in part because stations have no legal obligation to do so and in part because commercial broadcasters argue that they shouldn’t be in the business of refereeing campaign disputes.

“They get paid a hell of a lot of money,” he said. “And would you want [News Corp. owner] Rupert Murdoch deciding? I don’t think so.”

TV stations across the country are on pace to take in as much as $2.5 billion this election cycle, up roughly 25 percent from the 2006 midterms, according to a report by the SNL Kagan, a media and communications intelligence firm.

The firm said such spending would exceed the $1.56 billion spent in the 2004 presidential elections. Much of this year’s money will come from the large number of gubernatorial races.

Evan Tracey, head of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a political research organization, said the 2010 cycle is on a record-breaking trajectory for overall ad spending, with political groups having spent $280 million more in advertising than in the 2006 midterm election season. This year’s Supreme Court ruling, radically cutting back federal curbs on campaign spending by corporations, unions and special interest groups, has also contributed to the record-level numbers, media analysts said.

Mr. Tracey added that campaigns are banking on the fact that far more voters will see ads that push the boundaries of the truth than will view the fact-checking aftermath.

Still, demanding an ad be removed should be seen in the broader political perspective, he said.

“Campaigns are really about time and money,” Mr. Tracey said. “Demanding a takedown makes you spend money on lawyers and perhaps waste a day of advertising. It makes campaigns fight with a shield, not a sword.”

He said most fights center on facts taken out of context and that the victimized campaign is responsible for providing that context, either with a responding ad or by trying to have the ad in question removed.

In the Harris-Kratovil race in Maryland, the Harris campaign put up its own ad calling Mr. Kratovil’s claim “false, misleading, phony scare tactics,” citing the independent media outlets that have also challenged the ad.

Mr. Kratovil is back up with his own, slightly retooled attack ad, again implying the Republican still secretly favors higher taxes. “Buried in [Mr. Harris‘] website,” the modified ad claims, is “a promise to replace the tax code with a 23 percent sales tax.”

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