Political attack ads reign

Posted: October 26, 2010

Turn on your TV, fellow voter.

Look, there's dastardly Dan Onorato, who seemingly has turned thousands of Pittsburghers into unemployed zombies.

And dirty Jon Runyan, who appears to help fist-shaking foreigners in their oil fields by opposing clean-energy jobs in New Jersey.

And that shifty Mike Fitzpatrick, who allegedly pulled a midnight deal in Harrisburg just so he could keep raising Bucks County property taxes - all while stuffing an extra $20,000 into his own pockets.

And Joe Sestak, the former Navy admiral who all but salutes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi en route to killing off more jobs.

Are you buying into any of these caricatures, seen in recent area political ads? The candidates' opponents certainly hope so, even as they are being hit with similar dubious broadsides in return.

With a host of close, important races attracting wads of advertising money into the region, the Philadelphia airwaves have turned nearly as negative as when its sports teams were abject losers.

Political attack ads are king this election season, area experts say.

"There's a very high level of attacks out there," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "No one wants to offer solutions."

With the economy in the tank and Democrats' remedies unpopular, Republicans are more apt to attack than to propose, Jamieson said. And Democrats often find it less perilous to soil their opponents than to take credit for a health-care reform law, which still gives a majority of Americans the willies.

G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said he had no doubt "that the commercials are more negative and that there are more of them than we've seen in maybe forever here."

With a U.S. Senate seat, the governor's mansion and several key U.S. House seats in play, Madonna said, "there is probably more being spent on TV in Pennsylvania in this cycle than even in the presidential elections."

Contributing heavily are negative ads bought by outside interest groups unbridled by this year's Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Such groups have pumped nearly $19 million into the Senate race between Democrat Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey. Two-thirds of that amount, the second-highest outside spending in the nation, has bought attack ads, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

The phenomenon could be more regional than national. The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks federal campaign advertising, sees no greater percentage of attack ads nationwide this year than in 2008.

But here? Put on your waders.

Some examples:

Adler-Runyan. TV ads in New Jersey's Third Congressional District race say Republican challenger Runyan "opposes clean-energy jobs" and freshman Democratic incumbent John Adler voted "to preserve Pelosi's health-care mandate."

Both stretch the facts.

The charge against Runyan appears in a recent Adler ad showing grainy images of Runyan, an angry horde of Arabs shaking their fists, and an oil field. Runyan opposes the American Clean Energy Act of 2009, which seeks to limit carbon gases, in part, by forcing utilities to use clean and renewable energy sources to generate 20 percent of their electricity by 2020.

"Runyan opposes creating clean-energy jobs so we can reduce our dependence on oil from unstable foreign countries," the ad says.

Runyan says he opposes the bill because it would increase energy costs, but repeatedly has voiced support for clean-energy jobs and less dependence on foreign oil.

Two ads financed by the conservative American Future Fund, a nonprofit which does not have to reveal its donors, say Adler voted "for keeping [Pelosi's] new government health-care mandates."

The words "John Adler voted to preserve Pelosi's health-care mandate" run under an unflattering image of Adler aside a man lying in a hospital bed.

The ads refer to a procedural vote Adler made in June on a small-business tax bill with an amendment that would have repealed a section of the health-care overhaul.

On the health-care bill itself, Adler voted no, saying that it did too little to contain costs.

Sestak-Toomey. An ad by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee called Toomey, a former congressman and Wall Street trader, "a pioneer" in the use of financial derivatives that "wound up destroying our economy."

FactCheck.org found the assertion to be false, along with the ad's claim that Toomey "wrote the law" blamed for loosening government oversight of Wall Street.

Toomey was a freshman legislator when the law banning banks from engaging in securities trading along with commercial banking was repealed. Toomey's website at the time said he "helped" write it, but he was hardly its author.

A trader from 1984 to 1991, Toomey specialized in derivatives other than the risky credit-default swaps based on mortgages blamed for triggering the market crash.

Toomey's Republican allies have hit Sestak for cuts in Medicare spending they say are embedded in the health-care overhaul that Sestak supported.

"He voted to gut Medicare, slashing benefits for Pennsylvania seniors," a narrator intones in the ad, which features sepia-tone photos of worried-looking seniors. "The Obama-Sestak scheme could jeopardize access to care for millions."

PolitiFact.com, a site run by the St. Petersburg Times newspaper, dismissed the ad as "barely true."

The ad refers to Medicare Advantage, a private insurance supplement to Medicare that costs taxpayers 14 percent more. The health-care law seeks reduced payments to these insurers over time, saving $136 billion. That may cut some benefits, but basic coverage would be unaffected, PolitiFact said.

Onorato-Corbett. Tame by comparison, all advertising in the Pennsylvania governor's race has been produced by the candidates, not outside groups.

Republican Tom Corbett's camp has complained about an Onorato spot warning that Corbett "could" cut Meals on Wheels, home health-care services, Alzheimer's research, and funding for senior centers.

Corbett, the state attorney general, has never said he'd do any of these things - although in a new ad he says he intends to cut state administrative costs by 10 percent.

Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said Onorato was trying to "scare seniors."

Corbett has likewise raised the temperature of his TV advertising in recent weeks.

"Dan Onorato is trying to deceive you," a narrator intones in one ad. "Dan Onorato is running a TV commercial claiming that he created over 9,000 jobs. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth."

Since Onorato became Allegheny County executive, the ad says, 21,000 people in the county have become "out of work."

Leslie Gromis Baker, a senior Corbett campaign adviser, defended the ad, saying Onorato can't claim to have "created" a job unless it was added to his county payroll.

Onorato has said only that he "helped create" jobs in the private sector through development programs to aid companies expanding or setting up shop in Allegheny County.

He has not disputed that 21,000 people across the county may have lost jobs, but says his county's unemployment rate is below state and national averages.

Murphy-Fitzpatrick. In Pennsylvania's Eighth Congressional District, two-term incumbent Democrat Patrick Murphy has hounded Fitzpatrick for raising taxes in seven of his 10 years as a Bucks County commissioner.

Over the same period, the ad says, showing a briefcase full of stacked $100 bills, "Fitzpatrick raised his own pay $20,000. Fitzpatrick took care of himself, not you."

Fitzpatrick received incremental increases that raised his annual pay from $53,302 in 1995 to $74,424 in 2004.

Fitzpatrick's most recent TV ad, produced by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, casts Murphy as a disappointment who votes with Pelosi 97 percent of the time, including unpopular bailout, stimulus and health-care plans.

"On [Murphy's] watch," a narrator says, "unemployment nearly doubled."

Murphy's camp complains that the ad distorts by blaming the national unemployment rate on him. To the contrary, Murphy says, he has brought 3,000 new jobs to Bucks County.

Contact staff writer Larry King

at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.

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