By Betsy Rothstein - 07/18/06 12:00 AM EDT
You are in the final stretch of a tight race for Congress. You wake up one morning and suddenly you’re pro-sodomy, pro-Hitler, you support the indiscriminate sterilization of women and you smile too much.
This is the sinister side of the campaign trail, where enemies want to destroy your reputation and don’t care whether their accusations are true or not.
“Oh, Lord, I’ve been accused of going to a California winery drinking champagne and eating caviar while I was mayor of Kansas,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). He added, “I don’t drink, and I don’t eat caviar.”
One of the primary causes for outlandish accusations is that campaigns are highly emotional and candidates can be prone to outbursts.
“Desperate people do desperate things,” said Kevin Spillane, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant. “Candidates are surprisingly unsophisticated about what the electorate wants. You’re dealing with the politically naive who think just because their spouse or neighbor across the street agrees with them it’s an OK accusation to make.”
That was true enough last month when Tom Berryhill, a California state Assembly candidate, was criticized for having a heart transplant. In a campaign mailer, his opponent, Bill Conrad, offered life-expectancy statistics and implied that Berryhill would die in office and taxpayers would bear the cost of a special election. Conrad charged, “Tom Berryhill doesn’t have the heart for state Assembly.
But apparently he does. Berryhill won 2-1.
Ugly campaign tactics have been the norm rather than the exception. Sodomy became the subject of a 2004 congressional campaign when things got heated in a six-way Louisiana Republican primary that included Republican Billy Tauzin III and state Sen. Craig Romero.
During the campaign, Romero repeatedly referred to Tauzin, 30, as “the boy” and criticized him for his youth and inexperience and for running on the coattails of his father, then-Rep. Billy Tauzin Jr. (R).
In days leading up to the primary, the younger Tauzin accused Romero of wanting to repeal a Louisiana law that bans sodomy, which Romero furiously denied. In the end, Romero was edged out of a runoff by less than a percentage point; Tauzin made the runoff with 32 percent.
Last week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put out a release saying GOP Senate campaigns are “rolling out dirty tricks and hiring experts in smear.”
The release sites Republican Sens. George Allen (Va.) and Jim Talent (Mo.) and GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy (Minn.) for hiring the “Hitler Ad” consultant, Scott Howell, who created an ad featuring the Fuhrer in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race.
The DSCC release also highlights New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr., who has hired a researcher who once sent thousands of anonymous postcards accusing a candidate’s wife of being in an orgasm cult.
Insulting a candidate’s wife in the course of a campaign often backfires. Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) recalled his first race for state office, in which his opponent accused him of making schoolchildren cry.
Udall’s wife, Maggie, worked for the Sierra Club, which supported a program called smart growth. His opponent said it was bad policy for schoolchildren.
Udall recalled his anger toward the candidate. When leaving a debate one night, he pulled his opponent aside and said, “You can say what you want about me, but you better leave my wife out of it.
“His eyes just got big. It was a one-way conversation.”
Udall said he has never accused an opponent of anything off the wall: “That’s a problem I have. I’m not an attack dog. I’m not prone to personal-attack politics.”
In his first race for Congress in 1998, an entirely different kind of mess unfolded for Udall. On Election Day, his opponent, former Boulder Mayor Bob Greenlee, declared, “If you vote for Mark Udall you will legalize marijuana.”
“It was Election Day. What were you going to do about it?” Udall recalled. Supporters tried to comfort him. They said this is Boulder, Colo. — this is going to help, not hurt. Udall had no public reaction and won his race.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) knows the pain of being accused of something bizarre. She says she has been accused of “smiling too much.”
And the youthful Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) was accused in his race for Congress of dyeing his hair gray to make himself look less boyish. He was 27 at the time.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) says, “I can just get accused of telling the truth.” And Rep. Jos頓errano (D-N.Y.) had this to offer: “Oh God, bizarre? Being a communist.”
But not all members have functioning memories. Some have sudden bouts of amnesia when asked to recall strange accusations cast against them.
“I have no idea, and if I did, I’m not sure I would tell you,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.).
Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) also can’t remember. “I forget. It’s all silly; campaigns have turned into silly season,” he said.
And this from Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.): “You have stumped me.”
One of the more vague responses came from Rep. Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.), a self-made millionaire whom Democrats criticized for accepting $2,000 from American Prosperity PAC, which was controlled by now-jailed former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), and $20,000 from former Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) Americans for a Republican Majority PAC: “There has been a lot of disingenuousness, [such as] claiming I did something I didn’t.”
But some lawmakers have the opposite problem — they can’t forget.
Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) felt the sting of campaign treachery when he donated $1,000 to the Senate campaign of Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), whose Democratic opponent accused of him sterilizing a woman in his care without her consent.
English said his own opponent had written a book advocating human sterilization but turned around and accused him of supporting the sterilization of women because he had donated to Coburn. “This was the strangest attempt to flip an issue that I had ever seen,” English said.
Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) said most accusations are bizarre because they have no relevance. “One of my opponents tried to tie me to George Bush and Tom DeLay, but I’m John Sweeney,” he said.
Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), says every election cycle has its outlandish accusations but they have increased because Democrats have had to accept second- and third-choice candidates because some of their first choices have backed out.
What that means, he said, is that the Republican candidate is often running against a “political neophyte. They tend to run decent races until the pressure of the final weeks before the election, and then the pressure becomes overwhelming. That is when they either say something stupid or do something stupid. The election is very close and the candidate decides he or she needs to do something bold.”
What should a candidate do if faced with a bizarre accusation?
“It probably depends on the scope of the charge,” Petru said. “If it’s something so outlandish that doesn’t approach credibility, oftentimes it’s best not to dignify it with a response. If your opponent accuses you of wanting to invade Canada, the person is leading an outlandish charge.”
Spillane, the GOP consultant, said you are often dealing with candidates who are not serious people to begin with.
“Sometimes you are dealing with flakey or nutty people,” he said. “Anyone can file for Congress. So you get a lot of loonies.
“The Lyndon LaRouche people are always making bizarre accusations. These are people who are seriously ill.”