With elections near, mudslinging begins

by Courtney Blanchard

Voters might have to crawl through the mud to get to the polls this November.

Democrats and Republicans alike are throwing dirt in high-profile races, in a “he said, she said” attempt to bring voters to their side.

Some experts speculate the attack ads broadcast in high-profile gubernatorial and congressional races will simply lead to lower voter turnout.

“Negative ads can be disheartening for some voters and discourage them from bothering to vote at all,” said Brian Southwell, a University strategic communications professor.

Southwell said scholars still don’t know whether negative ads work, but they can hurt a candidate with little name recognition early in a race.

Despite a recent Washington Post article that revealed Republican National Committee plans to use negative advertising, Mark Drake, the committee’s Minnesota spokesman, said he didn’t think that was in store.

“I think the Republicans here are going to stay positive and stay focused on their records,” he said.

Drake said strikes on candidates like Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, focus on contradictions between campaign pledges and candidates’ past behavior – such as Klobuchar’s complaints against lobbyists, despite having been one.

In contrast, Drake said, DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch “attacks the governor every five minutes.”

Jess McIntosh, a DFL spokeswoman, said that while Democrats will likely use some negative campaigning, “the way we’ve pointed out flaws has been different.”

She said Republican candidates are digging up events from 15 years ago.

“I think we’ve seen considerably more personal attacks this year,” McIntosh said.

Alan Fine, a lecturer at the Carlson School of Management, is the Republican candidate running against DFL-endorsed candidate Keith Ellison in the overwhelmingly Democratic 5th Congressional District.

The day after the state primary, Fine held a news conference condemning Ellison and his past ties to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a figure criticized as anti-Semitic and anti-white.

“I’m personally offended, as a Jew, that we have a candidate like this running for U.S. Congress,” Fine said at the news conference.

Fine’s statements, on the heels of a generally positive pre-primary campaign, have drawn attention to the race, disillusioning Democrats and Republicans alike. Bloggers, columnists and ordinary citizens are either joining the mêlée or steering clear.

“(Voters) should be happy that someone raised the issue,” Fine said. “It takes courage to do that.”

Some claim Fine is bending to GOP pressure, but he took full responsibility for his campaign.

“Some people may not be happy with how I did it,” he said, “but I resent when people talk about me being under someone else’s control.”

In an interview Monday, Ellison said he was concerned about the criticism, but he thinks people want to hear the issues and want him to stay positive.

He said his decision to keep his campaign positive is not a tactical move, but one of principle.

“I’m not trying to protect my own ego,” he said.

Negative campaigning doesn’t necessarily make people switch party loyalties, but might dampen enthusiasm for the candidate in their own party, Ellison said.

“It’s fundamentally a voter suppression strategy,” he said.

Kathryn Pearson, a University political science professor, said researchers have mixed opinions regarding the implications of negative campaigning and advertisements. Some think they keep voters away from the polls, while others think they have no effect, she said.

“Clearly candidates think they must work or they wouldn’t use them,” she said.

Candidates have been name-calling since before the advent of modern media and Pearson said this year isn’t especially negative.

Candidates use such tactics to contrast themselves with their opponents, she said.

“I think competitive campaigns tend to be negative,” she said.

There are some candidates, however, who say they benefit from stepping back from the Democrats and Republicans fray.

Eric Petersen, spokesman for Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee, said her bid for the 5th District seat will give voters a “positive, issues-oriented campaign.”

“A lot of the mudslinging back and forth (from) Alan Fine and the GOP has clouded some of the issues,” he said.