Across America, it's been one of the nastiest elections ever — but California is on the cutting-edge. It's the one state where Democrats might actually win one of the toughest media wars ever, meaning TV viewers are seeing some of the roughest ads.
And often, your best weapon is your opponent's own words...
1. The Bondage and Leather Festival
When he was mayor, Gavin Newson "wasted tax dollars organizing a bondage and leather festival," according to this ad. (Though to be fair, that city was San Francisco...) While ostensibly complaining about the costs, Republican Abel Maldonado is really pressing the "extreme values" button, saying his opponent "wants to do for California what he did for San Francisco." (And ultimately the ad ends with an announcer complaining about Newsom's "extreme whether-you-like-it-or-not values".) It's the race for Lieutenant Governor, and in a traditionally Democratic state, Maldonado is trying the "kitchen sink" approach — lobbing a hodgepodge of attacks hoping something sticks.
The ad also cites $15,000 of taxpayer money spent "having police drive his car to Montana for his wedding," while a second Maldonado ad tries an entirely different approach — like an episode of "Law and Order." The "Fatal Negligence" ad opens with gunshots and a siren, then announces that while Newsom was mayor, "San Francisco refused to turn dangerous illegal criminals over to authorities for deportation... It took a triple murder for mayor Gavin Newsom to admit San Francisco's Sanctuary City policies were a misguided and costly mistake." Using the same logic as the notorious Willie Horton ad, the announcer argues that Newsom's policies "Let 185 dangerous illegal immigrants go free. One of them — a gang member and convicted felon — is now charged with murdering a father and two of his sons."
The Newsom campaign fought back with a lighter ad, broadcasting their own list of Maldonado's equally damning offenses using a wacky animation of a demented politician which, if nothing else would make an excellent series for the Cartoon Network.
2. Yes, I Will Double-Dip
One political analyst called this ad "a game-changer." In an extremely tight race to be Calfornia's attorney general, two candidates braced for an October 5 debate at the U.C. Davis School of Law. But then Republican Steve Cooley was asked how he'd handle his post-election finances. Did Cooley also plan to collect a pension for his work as Los Angeles County's District Attorney, effectively "double-dipping"?
"Yes I do," Cooley answers emphatically. And then there's an awkward pause...
"I earned it," he blurts out. "I definitely earned, uh, whatever pension rights I have, uh, and I will certainly rely upon that, uh, to uh, supplement the very low — incredibly low — salary that's paid to the state attorney general." (Although what's not aired is the original response of his opponent, Democrat Kamala Harris. "Go for it, Steve. You've earned it, there's no question.")
Sensing an opportunity, the Harris campaign rushed a video clip of her opponent into a TV ad, which hit the airwaves just weeks before the election. Cooley had inadvertently created an instant attack ad. All that it needed was ominous music.
Along with the words "$150,000 isn't enough?" just as Cooley says the words "very low — incredibly low — salary..."
3. The Great California Mash-up
One advantage of the instant attack ad" is it avoids extra (and expensive) production. For example, this ad is sort of a mash-up, using most of Jerry Brown's original "positive" ad — with a clip from a positive ad by his opponent. Democrat Brown splices in an apparent endorsement from the former CEO of eBay, Meg Whitman — who just happens to be his opponent in the race.
"You know, 30 years ago, anything was possible in this state," Whitman says, before the ad reminds viewers that 30 years ago, the state's governor was Jerry Brown. ("I mean, it's why I came to California so many years ago," Whitman says at the end of the ad.)
Jerry Brown was California's governor from 1975 to 1983, starting his term at the age of 36. (He was following in the footsteps of his father, Pat Brown, who became California's governor in 1959, defeating Richard Nixon to win re-election in 1962, and then then losing in 1966 to Ronald Reagan.) Now at the age of 74, Brown seeks a comeback against a tough opponent who's tapped her personal fortune to fund a non-stop television blitz. Meg Whitman's spent over $142 million of her own money, making this by far the most expensive election ever in California's history.
California's second most-expensive election was the $80 million spent in 2002 when Democrat Gray Davis defeated Republican Bill Simon in 2002 — before Davis was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Eight years later, in the race to be his successor, the Whitman campaign has spent a total of more than $162 million, only to find that Brown is still heavily favored. Whitman's campaign was already hurt by stories that she employed an illegal alien — while campaigning on a promise to "hold employers accountable" for hiring documented workers. But last week the Washington Post calls Brown's new mash-up ad "devastating."
But ironically, Jerry Brown himself also turns up in one of the Republican ads attacking fellow Democrat Gavin Newsom.
4. Crushing, Destroying, and Killing
In early October, Carly Fiorina coordinated with the National Republican Senatorial Committee for an extremely stark campaign ad attacking Barbara Boxer. Filmed in black and white, it cites "Trillions in reckless, wasteful spending..." tying Boxer to perceived sins of Washington today — not just "destroying small business," but also "crushing hopes." (Using another strong verb, the ad reports that the established Washington regime isn't just reducing the number of jobs, but actually "killing" them.)
There's always been lots of venom for liberal Senators, but Boxer seems to draw an extra helping of scatter-shot rage. (One photograph in an earlier ad — titled "Crushed" — actually cites the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.) And for web audiences the Republican Senate Committee even created a special ad citing Boxer's "Decades of epic fail" (pointing viewers to a Boxer-bashing site called CallMeMaam.com). It identifies her first as a "political operative" in the 1960s, then a county supervisor in the 1970s, eventually contrasting her with unpopular Democrat politicians like Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton.
Because unlike them, Boxer is still in Washington, seeking a fourth six-year term.
Polls show Boxer may win her race, but the ad wasn't a total waste. With a few changes, the Republican Senate Committee also created an almost identical ad citing "decades of epic fail" for Democrat Harry Reid.
There was times it was considered one of the closest Congressional races in the country. Four-term incumbent Dan Lungren had actually raised less money than his challenger — for 15 consecutive months — giving Democrats a rare chance to takeover a Republican seat. And that was before a police officer pulled over Lungren while he was talking on his cellphone — during a radio call-in show. ("Can you hang up the phone, sir...?")
The next week his challenger, Ami Bera, showed up at Lungren's office with a special gift — a hands-free cellphone unit. But it all played into the theme they'd already decided on: that Lungren was an arrogant Washington insider. "Our Congressman was one of the first to find a loophole around ethics laws," this ad announces, "so Washington lobbyists could send him off first class to a party in Hawaii." (It taps footage of Lungren applying suntan lotion to his back, plus an ABC News interview where a smiling Lungren explains, "We do a lot of business around pools.")
The footage even captures a cheerful pique in Lungren's voice when he adds, "Do I look like I would go to Pittsburgh in January?" Then the ad invites voters to wallow in their indignation at LoopholeLungren.com — where there's a much-longer video. But in both cases, the message is unmistakable. "My congressman went to Hawaii, and all I got was a campaign ad where his opponents get to wear Hawaiian shirts."
This race follows the pattern of the Democrat using a lighter ad while the Republican goes for the jugular. In this case, Lungren argues Nancy Pelosi reflects the "liberal ideas of San Francisco," then calls newcomer Ami Bera "a Pelosi clone," and then fills his ad with unflattering pictures of Nancy Pelosi.
Lungren seems to be making a direct appeal to the Tea Party, especially in another ad where he warns that "friends, neighbors, people I don't even know, are concerned about losing their freedom — and I haven't heard that word used as often in my lifetime... For whatever reason, they voted for something new, but did not vote for this madness. And I'd like to make sure that the madness does not continue."
California may not be the best state to make that pitch — but maybe it tells us something about the election of 2010. Yes, now Democrats and Republicans often seem to live in two different universes — seeing entirely different facts, or drawing the opposite conclusions. And this was always going to be an unusual election, with the Tea Party energizing some Republican campaigns and the aftermath of a major Supreme Court decision about the financing of campaign ads.
But in theory, the fairest ads still attack a candidate on their actual record. In practice, however California viewers got ads which cherry-picked only the most damning soundbites — almost invariably blowing them out of proportion. The end result is an election where all the candidates seem to be hitting past each other at some horrific, unidentified bogeyman.
And yet on election day, one of those bogeymen is actually going to win.
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