Beware of the super-PAC: More lawmakers are fearing an ad ambush

The proliferation of super-PACs has come in a presidential election year, and their attacks have mostly been aimed at White House hopefuls. But members of Congress should not rest easy, according to Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).

DeFazio was targeted last cycle by a super-PAC based on the East Coast that released attack ads calling him a puppet of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a popular punching bag for conservatives.

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“The facts show that I often opposed Pelosi, but facts don’t matter in cases like this,” DeFazio said. “When it is said a thousand times that I followed Pelosi, that message is going to stick with some people. They’re going into the voting booth and, to hit Pelosi, they’re voting against me.”

DeFazio survived his election in 2010, a historic year for Republicans. However, it is a good bet that more super-PACs will be formed against incumbent lawmakers amid record-low approval ratings for Congress. 

The independent groups are already spending large sums of money and launching negative ads on behalf of each of the major Republican presidential candidates. President Obama, who has spoken out against super-PACs, recently endorsed the activities of a pro-Obama super-PAC to arm the four-more-years effort with the same caliber firepower the other side will be bringing to the anticipated ad wars.

Super-PACs are also picking up their activity in House and Senate races across the country. 

For example, FreedomWorks for America, a conservative super-PAC not supporting any specific candidate, poured about $625,000 into Utah to defeat longtime Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and replace him with a Tea Party conservative. Hatch has so far withstood the onslaught, and is favored to retain his seat.

But another longtime Republican lawmaker, Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.), might not be so fortunate. FreedomWorks is already spending against him and for his conservative opponent, Richard Mourdock. The super-PAC has indicated it will pour much more money into the race before primary voters make their selections on May 8.

Another super-PAC launched by the Club for Growth has begun to aid Mourdock and hit Lugar with negative ads, and polls show Mourdock closing in on the six-term senator.

In the race for the Senate seat from Virginia, both Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen have super-PACs behind them.

In another huge Senate contest in Massachusetts, Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren have jointly pledged to keep super-PACs out of their race. The super-PACs, however, are already in it, spending vast sums on both sides, and are under no obligation to stop their activities. 

The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a super-PAC that claims it has no party affiliation — though it is funded by wealthy Republicans — has targeted both Republican and Democratic lawmakers for defeat in primaries and in the general election. It has been given credit for incumbent Rep. Jean Schmidt’s (R-Ohio) primary loss to Brad Wenstrup earlier this month.

Super-PACs were made possible, in part, by the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The super-PAC is empowered to accept unlimited donations and make unlimited expenditures in support of, or opposition to, a political candidate, provided the organization does not directly coordinate with the candidates or their campaigns.

Super-PACs come in all forms: conservative and liberal, issue-, candidate- and cause-specific. They are in command of millions of dollars. They strike with stealth and, often, with stinging, negative ads. 

“Studies have shown that people are repulsed by the content of these negative ads, but they also retain the information,” said DeFazio. “They work. That’s why campaigns continue to use them.”

All negative ads are not created equal. Some, for example, are accurate.

“There is nothing wrong with a negative ad that is true and relevant. It’s a legitimate attack ad and it’s useful to the voter,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications.

Jamieson explained that most people do not consider legitimate attack ads negative.

“What most people consider a negative ad is a dishonest, dirty ad,” she said.

It is the false, scurrilous attacks — coming out of nowhere and often en masse — that politicians find especially frustrating, leaving them in a quandary of how, when or even whether to respond.

DeFazio realized he could not fight an army of ads every day with the classic method of telling the truth and returning to message.

“I decided to use their money against them, confront them publicly and use the publicity for my own campaign,” he said.

DeFazio, reporters in tow, went to the Washington, D.C., office of the shadowy super-PAC and confronted a less-than-forthcoming man who answered the phones. The lawmaker got his publicity and won reelection. But he is preparing for largely the same treatment this time around.

“You have to fight back. You have to do something,” he said. “Every candidate is vulnerable to such attacks.”

And the salvos are going to get more prevalent, more intense and more sophisticated as the elections near, Jamieson said.

“We are also going to see a lot of micro-targeting, with ads strategically placed on radio, cable and the Internet, aimed at specific voting populations,” she said.

There are those who contend that super-PACs are nothing more than an extension of freedom of speech. They say that all the new money won’t make that great a difference in the way the system has worked for a long time, and that most of the negative ads are fair and informative. DeFazio has a different opinion. 

“This is turning into an unbelievably chaotic election process,” he said. “We will see how appalled voters become. Hopefully we get to complete revulsion, so things can change.”