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Sliming me, sliming you

Charley Shaw//October 29, 2010

Sliming me, sliming you

Charley Shaw//October 29, 2010

Negativity bites back at accusers in some lege races

In some political attacks during this year’s legislative campaign, the attacking party has been the one that’s gotten bloodied.

The Republican and DFL parties have bombarded competitive districts with negative mailings in the final month of the campaign. While the bulk of the mailings get swept into the recycling bin, some campaigns have scored political points by protesting vociferously against the attacks.

Most notably, Republicans have drawn statewide and national attention by mounting a protest to a DFL mailer that the GOP branded as anti-Catholic.

Candidates from both sides of the aisle have attracted media attention by crying foul over attack ads from opponents. The dynamic is nothing new.

“I think this is par for the course,” said Gregg Peppin, a Republican strategist and former state House Republican campaign manager. “You’ve had a fair amount of contrast [mailings] on both sides. Anytime you get into these battleground districts, that’s what you get.”

In some cases, candidates have charged that the attacks are not merely distortions but unbecomingly personal assaults.

House Republican leaders generated local press attention in the hyper-competitive District 12B House race near Brainerd between Rep. Al Doty, DFL-Royalton, and repeat GOP challenger Mike LeMieur. The DFL Party sent out an attack mailing that accused LeMieur of steering a contract for snow removal to his cousin. Key Republican legislators – including House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and House campaign chief Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood – beat a path to the district to hold a rebuttal press conference that was covered by Brainerd media.

In another case, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, decried a mail piece that called attention to her vote to increase legislative per diems and another vote in favor of “wasteful projects” in the bonding bill like the gorilla exhibit at the Como Zoo in St. Paul. The lit piece showed a graphic of a life preserver made out of paper money with this headline: “Senator Terri Bonoff ‘floated’ a little help for herself.”

Bonoff’s campaign responded in a press release that the mailer failed to mention she opted out of receiving the higher per diem. As for the bonding bill, her campaign said she voted for an amendment to remove the gorilla section and other projects from the bonding bill.

Adam Schiff, Bonoff’s campaign manager, responded to the GOP campaign rhetoric with familiar DFL rhetoric, terming the mailer “right out of the Karl Rove playbook.”

The biggest example of a negative attack gone wrong this year is the DFL’s allegedly “anti-Catholic” lit piece on Republican Senate candidate Dan Hall, a chaplain from Burnsville. The state DFL Party flooded District 40 mailboxes with a mailing that showed a person dressed as a priest wearing a button that reads: “Ignore the Poor.” DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton and District 40 DFL incumbent Sen. John Doll, DFL-Burnsville, publicly disavowed the mailer. More importantly, the controversy was featured on Twin Cities television stations that air in District 40.

The rhetoric is particularly tough in close districts. Republicans, who are trying to win back seats they’ve lost by slim margins in the last three election cycles, are hammering on DFL incumbents’ voting records. DFL legislators across the state are seeing a blizzard of lit pieces that accuse them of supporting pork-barrel projects in the bonding bill, as evidenced by the Bonoff attack piece.

In addition to criticism over the bonding bill, Republicans have sent out mail that criticizes Democratic incumbents for voting to “bail out” the city of St. Paul. In 2009 the city asked the state to forgive its debt on the Xcel Energy Center in order to free up funds to build an ice arena and mixed-use development called The Pond in downtown St. Paul.

Since most GOP challengers don’t have legislative voting records to pick apart, many of them are the butt of attacks centered on their professional backgrounds.

Republican candidate Dave Brown, who is running against Sen. Lisa Fobbe, DFL-Zimmerman, in the fiercely contested SD 16, said that mail from the DFL Party has alleged that he’s beholden to corporate health care interests because he’s an independent insurance agent who sells health policies. One ad said his candidacy is akin to letting the “fox into the hen house.”

“It’s pretty repetitive,” Brown said. “It talks about how I want to kick grandma out of the nursing home. … Obviously I don’t want to kick grandma out of the nursing home.”

Especially in competitive races the parties have gotten creative with their mail pieces.

Sean Nienow, a former state senator who is running to win back the District 17 seat that he lost in 2006 to Sen. Rick Olseen, DFL-Harris, said he couldn’t help being amused at a DFL mailer that criticized his proposal around the time of the 2005 partial government shutdown to deny per diem expense reimbursements to legislators when they fail to pass a budget on time. Nienow’s bill didn’t pass and he took per diems. The DFL mailer spun a play on Nienow’s name: “Senator Me Now.”

“That one, I literally laughed out loud,” Nienow said.

Candidates from both parties say it’s the state GOP and DFL party committees making most of the independent expenditures in legislative races. The effort has been as expensive as it’s been voluminous, and the DFL holds a formidable edge in financial resources. Of the $1,986,655 the DFL Party has committed to independent expenditures in the 2010 cycle, roughly $1.37 million had been spent on legislative races as of October 18, according to state campaign finance reports. The GOP has spent $367,000 on legislative races out of a total independent expenditures tally of $991,900.

“I think everybody will be glad when November 3 gets here,” Brown said.

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