The Romney strategy is back. Not the flawed campaign plan of Mitt Romney for the 2012 election, but the effort by President Obama and Democrats to malign Romney, even before he’d become the GOP nominee, as morally unfit for the presidency.
Now the strategy is focused on Republican Senate candidates, some of them still running in contested primaries. From Democratic TV ads, we learn that Dan Sullivan in Alaska may not be “one of us,” a true Alaskan. Tom Cotton in Arkansas, having worked for insurance companies, is “a politician we just can’t trust.” And Bill Cassidy in Louisiana sought to “cut off hurricane relief for Louisiana families.”
There’s a name for this strategy—the politics of personal destruction. It was successful in 2012 in transforming Romney’s image into that of an uncaring, greedy corporate boss who made millions while shutting down companies and throwing workers out of jobs. In one Obama ad, Romney was falsely blamed for the cancer death of a worker’s wife.
The chief practitioner of the Romney strategy today is Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who is desperate to keep Republicans from taking control of the Senate in the November midterm elections. The ads are the handiwork of Reid’s Senate Majority PAC or its sister organization, the Patriot Majority PAC.
What’s striking is their emphasis on personal matters rather than major public issues like health care or the economy and their frequent inaccuracy. Cotton, for example, has never worked for an insurance company. Nor did Cassidy seek to curb disaster relief.
Reid’s specialty is intruding in Republican primary races to discredit the candidate most likely to pose a strong challenge to a Democrat in the general election. He’s done this before and has been quite effective.
In 2010, he intervened in the Nevada GOP primary with an ad ridiculing Sue Lowden, the Republican frontrunner to oppose his reelection. Reid succeeded. Lowden faded, and the winner of the primary, Sharron Angle, proved to be a poor candidate whom Reid easily defeated.
In 2012, he ran an ad in Missouri that touted the conservatism of Todd Akin, regarded as the weakest Republican against Democratic senator Claire McCaskill. With Reid’s help, Akin won the GOP primary, then lost to McCaskill.
This year, Reid is seeking to poison the reputation of the most highly regarded Republicans in races against Democratic incumbents. His excuse for intervening is that Democrats are being “smeared” by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative group partially funded by Charles and David Koch.
There’s a difference, however, between the AFP ads and Reid’s. AFP’s are far softer-hitting than Reid’s brutal and often false attacks. AFP criticizes Democrats for voting for Obama’s health care law—fair comment on an issue of national significance. Reid’s ads fixate on pettier, personal concerns.
In Alaska, the Put Alaska First PAC has broadcast an ad questioning whether Dan Sullivan is a real Alaskan. Sullivan leads in primary polls to run against Democratic senator Mark Begich. The ad said Sullivan is “claiming to be one of us,” but was born and raised in Ohio and owns a home in a “swanky” neighborhood outside Washington. “If elected, he won’t just go to Washington, he’ll go home to Washington.”
What it doesn’t say is critical. Sullivan, who had headed Alaska’s department of natural resources and was state attorney general, resided in Washington for several years when he worked in the George W. Bush administration. He bought a home there, but kept Alaska as his permanent voting residence. All this is perfectly legal and commonplace—except in the ad. Put Alaska First is largely funded by Reid’s Senate Majority PAC.
In Arkansas, Reid’s attack on Cotton is even more dishonest. The ad said: “Cotton got paid handsomely working for insurance companies. . . . Now Cotton wants to end Medicare’s guarantee, giving billions in profits to insurance companies.” None of that is true.
Factcheck.org investigated the charges against Cotton. “There is no evidence Cotton did work for insurers,” it concluded. “His only established connection to the industry involved consulting work for the Federal Housing Administration.” “The bottom line is that the Senate Majority PAC used both false and outdated information in its attack on Cotton.”
In Louisiana, Cassidy leads the field in the Republican Senate primary. In fact, he has run ahead of Democratic senator Mary Landrieu in many polls. Reid’s PAC indulged in guilt by association in tying Cassidy to the Koch brothers, who have aired TV ads pointing out Landrieu’s support for Obamacare. The Reid ad claimed Cassidy would “fight” for the Kochs to raise flood insurance premiums. Actually, Cassidy backed the flood insurance bill the Kochs opposed.
In other cases, Senate Majority PAC ads have been merely sleazy. An ad in North Carolina showed two couples alone in dark settings and linked Thom Tillis to the sex scandal in which his chief of staff and another aide were fired. Tillis’s involvement consisted only of giving bonuses to the aides on their departure.
In New Hampshire, a Reid ad said Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator now running for the Senate in New Hampshire, had purportedly saved Wall Street $19 billion in taxes. If true, he didn’t do it alone. The ad failed to mention Brown was one of the few Republicans to vote for the successful Democratic bill opposed by Wall Street, the Dodd-Frank legislation.
As reckless as Reid’s PAC ads are, they’ve attracted little attention from the mainstream media, much less prompted any indignation. Such permissiveness should worry Republicans, since it’s likely to lead Reid to continue his unscrupulous offensive.
His ads have achieved at least minimal success. The months-long fusillade by both his PACs has caused Cotton to fall narrowly behind Democratic senator Mark Pryor in recent polls. His approval rating also dipped. Fortunately, Cotton came up with an antidote last week, a witty ad featuring his Army drill sergeant.
Pryor—whose father was governor of Arkansas and served in the Senate for 18 years—had insisted Cotton felt “a sense of entitlement” to a Senate seat because of his military experience. His Army training, Cotton said in his TV spot, had taught him “accountability, humility, and putting the unit before yourself. That training stuck.” To which Master Sergeant George Norton responded, “It better have.”
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.