Republican candidates across the United States are taking the dubious art of negative advertising and character assassination to unprecedented levels of toxicity as polls indicate possible landslide gains for the Democrats on 7 November in crucial mid-term congressional elections.
A sense of near-desperation has overtaken the Republican camp just eight days away from polling day amid fears that the Democrats could seize control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate as well. Some analysts suggest the Republicans could suffer an even greater reversal than in 1974, when they lost 48 House seats in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation.
“This is the most challenging environment for Republicans since the Watergate year,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant. But with both sides in high gear, he said the game may not be over. “It is not an absolute sure thing that the Democrats take either the House or the Senate.”
President George Bush has now gone into full campaign mode, criss-crossing the land in an attempt to energise voters in districts where Republican candidates are at risk while reiterating his message that Democrats cannot be trusted to finish the war in Iraq and protect America from terrorism. “I want you to think about the Democrat plan for success. There isn’t one,” Mr Bush told Republicans at a rally in Indiana at the weekend. “They are in agreement on one thing; they will leave [Iraq] before the job is done, and we will not let them.”
There are scores of tightly contested congressional districts in many different states and this is where the worst of the mudslinging is happening, arguably making it the dirtiest political season in American history. It remains to be seen, however, how much of it will stick and to what extent some of the television spots will turn off voters and backfire on their authors.
Nobody, perhaps, has suffered more from such attacks than Ron Kind, a Democrat fighting to hold his House seat in Wisconsin. In recent weeks, his Republican opponent Paul Nelson has unleashed a battery of ads accusing Mr Kind of supporting taxpayer-funded studies of the sex habits of humans under the headline “Ron Kind pays for Sex!”, with XXX branded across images of his face.
“It’s a crazy system, and it’s getting worse every year,” said Mr Kind, who finds himself accused of supporting studies into “the sex lives of Vietnamese prostitutes” and the masturbation habits of old men. “We rip each other to shreds, and then we’re all supposed to come back to Washington and try to work together. It’s a hell of a way to elect representatives.”
Another Democrat under assault has been Harold Ford, assailed by his Republican foe for attending a Playboy-sponsored party at the Super Bowl. Television spots attacking Mr Ford show a scantily clad actress winking into the camera while recalling what a fine time she had at the party with the candidate. Another spot claims that Mr Ford “wants to give the abortion pill to schoolchildren”.
“When the news is bad, the ads tend to be negative,” explained Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford University professor. “And the more negative the ad, the more likely it is to get free media coverage. So there’s a big incentive to go to the extremes.”
Nor is the Republican Party abashed about what is going on. The National Republican Campaign Committee, which produces television spots for candidates around the country, is dedicating 90 per cent of its campaign budget to negative advertising, according to a report in The Washington Post.
Democrats are more easily able to eschew such tactics because they can focus instead on the record of the President and of the incumbent Republican majority, especially on Iraq. But that does not mean that some of their candidates have not succumbed to the lure of negative campaigning. In New York, for example, House candidate Kirsten Gillibrand has placed an online advertisement ridiculing her incumbent opponent John Sweeney for attending a campus party. “What’s a 50-year-old man doing at a frat party anyway?” a young woman asks with images of a look-alike actor dancing to pulsing music. Another woman replies: “Totally creeping me out!”
Democrats have not been shy in attacking any Republican they think they can link to the allegations that the former Republican House member Mark Foley sent inappropriate e-mails to young male pages in Congress.
It was in an apparent effort to shield a Republican candidate, Thomas Reynolds, who is ensnarled in the Foley affair, that Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s political strategist, showered his district in Buffalo, New York, with federal aid after an early winter snowstorm. The gift allowed Mr Reynolds to distract voters from the other news – his appearance at a congressional inquiry into the Foley allegations.
Uproar has surrounded a key race in San Diego, where a Vietnamese immigrant, Tan Nguyen, is trying to unseat the Democrat incumbent, who is Hispanic. He has resisted calls to pull out of the race after an investigation found his campaign had sent letters to thousands of Hispanic voters warning them not to vote on 7 November if they were not legally in the US, suggesting they could face deportation.
In Pennsylvania, a Democrat House candidate has been running attack ads on the Republican incumbent questioning his “family values” after an ex-mistress accused him of choking her.
Several Democrats, meanwhile, have found themselves victims of spots funded by an Indianapolis businessman, Patrick Rooney, who says they want to abort black babies. “If you make a little mistake with one of your ’hos, you’ll want to dispose of that problem tout de suite, no questions asked,” a voiceover on the advertisement declares.
In New York another Democratic candidate for the House, Michael Arcuri, has been struggling to recover from ads suggesting that he used taxpayers’ money to dial a phone sex line. It turns out that an aide did dial a sex service once by mistake.
Most analysts expect the Democrats at least to take control of the House, perhaps winning between 25 and 30 new seats, easily beyond the 15 gains they need. While that would bring a sea change to Washington, it would not equal the blow suffered by Bill Clinton in 1994 when mid-term elections saw Republicans pick up 52 seats in the House of Representatives.
The demonisation of the Democrats
* MICHAEL ARCURI, NEW YORK
An ad by the National Republican Campaign Committee accused House candidate Arcuri of using taxpayers’ money to dial a sex line. “Hi, sexy,” a comely actress declares. One of his aides indeed dialled a sex service from campaign headquarters, but only by mistake.
* HAROLD FORD, TENNESSEE
An African-American running for Senate, Mr Ford was the subject of an ad by the Republican National Committee revealing his attendance at a Super Bowl party sponsored by Playboy. It features an actress in skimpy clothing winking and urging Mr Ford to “call me”.
* STEVE KAGEN, WISCONSIN
Congressional candidate Dr Kagen was accused by the Republican Party of Wisconsin of having links to a serial killer and child rapist, a claim set out in an election mailshot. In fact, he was linked only to the man’s lawyer, who had once done some legal work for him.
* JIM WEBB, VIRGINIA
The incumbent Republican senator George Allen has published excerpts from Webb’s novels which contain graphic scenes of prostitution and child abuse. The Allen campaign claims that the passages show a “continued pattern of demeaning women”.
* RON KIND, WISCONSIN
Republican TV ads alleged Kind “pays for sex” after he opposed an effort in Congress to end funding of sex surveys by the National Institutes of Health. The ad implies this meant Kind wanted “to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia”.
* TAN NGUYEN, CALIFORNIA
A Vietnamese American running for the House admitted sending letters to Hispanic voters urging them to stay away from the polls on 7 November if there was any doubt about their legal status in the US. Nguyen is trying to oust a Democrat who is a Latino.
By David Usborne in New York