But that's only half the story. A 2002 overhaul of campaign law shifted ad-financing contributions to independent groups — and these groups are more likely to air negative campaign ads. In this new landscape, nearly $60 million has been spent on a massive stockpile of television artillery. The pageant of grotesqueries is entertaining eyeballs all over the InterTubes, as with the ones in this round-up of nasty Senate ads. Below are four even-nastier ads for tight House races — plus an update on the nastiest Senate race of all.
1. "Hi, sexy!"
A silhouette of a stripper appears next to footage of a smirking district attorney — Michael Arcuri, the Democratic House candidate for New York's 24th Congressional district.
"The phone number to an adult fantasy hotline appeared on Michael Arcuri's New York City hotel room bill," the announcer warns, "while he was there on official business... Who calls a fantasy hotline and then bills taxpayers?"
"Bad call!" the stripper moans.
What the ad doesn't say is the call lasted less than a minute, and was apparently a wrong number. While attending a 2004 conference for district attorneys, the director of New York's Prosecutor Training Institute had used Acuri's phone to dial the state's Department of Criminal Justice Services, which coincidentally had the same number, but with a 1-800 area code. Immediately realizing his mistake, he'd dialed the correct number, Arcuri told the L.A. Times — producing phone records to back up his claim. The cost of the mis-dialed phone call? $1.25.
The ad cites as its source conservative web site HumanEvents.com, though the story was published the same day the National Republican Campaign Committee distributed the information. (Ironically, the story's 26-year-old author, Robert B Bluey, is analumnus of Cybercast News Service, which also employed suspected male prostitute Jeff Gannon.)
Because of the ad's misleading nature, New York television stations are refusing to broadcast it, and in the Times' article even Arcuri's Republican opponent Ray Meier characterized the attack as "way over the line." In fact, both men told the Associated Press they were friends, and regretted the nasty tone of ads funded by their parties' national committees. But the National Republican Congressional Committeeinsisted the ad's claim that the call appeared on a taxpayer-funded phone bill is "totally true, and we stand by it."
In another NRCC ad, their announcer tells voters that "A man charged with raping a 13-year-old girl was let out of jail after Michael Arcuri's office didn't indict him in time."
2. "Harold? Call me!"
For the other side of Capitol Hill, the National Republican Senate Committee has created a sexy ad of their own. It's a montage of bizarro-world voters, each giving a ridiculously unappealing reason for supporting Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford.
"Terrorists need their privacy."
"When I die, Harold Ford will let me pay taxes again!"
"Ford's right. I do have too many guns!"
"So he took money from porn movie producers. Who hasn't?"
The format gives the ad's producers an opportunity to include a woman wearing nothing but a necklace, squeaking in a bimbo voice that she met Harold at the Playboy party. It's an allusion to a 2005 Super Bowl party Ford attended, which the Republicans have been using since last March, to attack Ford's appeal to values voters. ("What kind of man parties with Playboy playmates in lingerie, and then films political ads from a church pew?") But even Ford's opponent, Republican Bob Corker, thinks the national committee's latest ad "has no place in this, or any other campaign," according to his campaign manager. (Who added that the ad was "tacky, over the top and...not reflective of the kind of campaign we are running.")
The ad closes with the warning that the candidate is "just not right" - followed by one last shot of the mock Playboy bunny, whispering into the camera. "Harold? Call me!"
3. "An absolute idiot."
Idaho Republican Bill Sali finds himself in a surprisingly competive race for a district which encompasses half the state. Now he's facing TV attacks with a barrage of damning quotes about his candidacy — from Republicans. "He was incompetent in the legislature," goes the quote attributed to State Senator Sheila Sorensen. "In the campaign he proved himself dishonest and deceitful and he'd be an embarrassment to Idaho."
"He's an obstinate opportunist," according to Representative Dolores Crow.
"An absolute idiot," says another quote from Speaker Bruce Newcomb. "He doesn't have one ounce of empathy in his whole fricking body, and you can put that in the paper."
Sali is a far-right conservative who squeaked onto the ballot after winning 18,965 votes in a six-way primary. A social and fiscal conservative, Sali entered the race with a $400,000 war-chest, prompting Idaho's largest newspaper to dub him "a wholly-owned subsidiary of a big out-of-state benefactor, the anti-tax Club for Growth." His confrontational 16-year career in the state legislature has apparently created lingering bad feelings among other Republicans. (When Dick Cheney came to Idaho to campaign for Sali, all of Idaho's Republican congressmen reportedly skipped the event.) This created an opening for Idaho Democrat Larry Grant.
The announcer in his ad doesn't identify his party affiliation. It just reminds voters that "If you're a Republican or independent and you want to vote for Larry Grant — you're in good company."
4. "Help me!"
Majority Action is a 527 group which includes seven former members of Congress and the national field director for Al Gore's 2000 campaign. They've assembled a series of hard-hitting ads about stem cell research, an issue some believe could become a liberal wedge issue splitting voters off from traditionally Republican blocs.
Missouri Senate candidate Claire McCaskill has already tapped the issue for her tight race against Republican Jim Talent. (Michael J. Fox reminds viewers he cares deeply about stem cell research, and tells Missouri voters the election's results matter to millions of Americans — "Americans like me.") But a new ad by Majority Action tries to personalize the stakes even more. "This ad, in very powerful terms, lays out what is at stake in the stem cell debate," says the group's Executive Director.
One shows three people matter-of-factly describing the medical problems waiting in their future. A boy says he'll be paralyzed for the rest of his life; a woman saying she'll have Alzheimer's disease; a little girl says she'll be diagnosed with diabetes. Staring at the camera, they indict the Congressmen who voted against federal funding for stem cell research, saying it could save their lives, and maybe the lives of the viewer's family. "Help me!" the boy says. "Help me!" the little girl says...
Majority Action is running the same ad against four Republican House candidates — Don Sherwood, Jim Walsh, Chris Chocola, and Thelma Drake.
5. "Stay the course."
Thelma Drake gets a second dose of negativity from Majority Action in another ad saying she "won't stand up to the Bush/Cheney White House."
The ad is a straightforward attempt to link the Virginia Congresswoman to the failures of the Bush administration.
An image of George Bush, doubling into two, and then four images, repeats "We must stay the course. We must stay the course. We must stay the course..."
"It was the right thing to do," Dick Cheney says nonchalantly about the war in Iraq, "and if we had it to do over again, we'd do exactly the same thing. A closeup then appears of George Washington's sad eye on the dollar bill, next to the words "Exactly the same? Cost: Over $300 billion. Billions missing and insider deals...."
"It was the right thing to do," Dick Cheney says again, "and if we had it to do over again we'd do exactly the same thing."
"Insufficient forces. No weapons of mass destruction. Dubai ports sales scandal. Our ports and borders: unsecured."
The ad's stark take is matched by its striking melodramatic music - a disembodied chorus rising over discordant violins which would be more at home on the soundtrack of a scary movie.
"U.S. Intelligence Report: Iraq war breeding more terrorists. Five 'F's' from 9/11 Commission. bin Laden still at large. Exactly the same?"
The same ad is also being run agaisnt House candidates Dave Reichert, Deborha Pryce, and Jim Walsh.
To condemn each of these lawmaker's support of President Bush, the ads close by (badly) inserting Dick Cheney's lips into pictures of the candidates, so it looks like they're speaking Cheney's words. The ad-makers are hoping to swing the election towards the Democrats, and they're staking it on the idea that voters will find something unforgiveable in the Vice President's staunch refusal to concede mistakes.
"It was the right thing to do," they lip sync, "and if we had it to do over again we'd do exactly the same thing."
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