Negative Ads Are Top Issues in Key Senate Races
Negative advertising certainly is nothing new in competitive political races. But this season, two states with hypercompetitive Senate racesin Tennessee and Missouri#150;have seen two of the season's most controversial ads. The adsa piece that includes an actress portraying a Playboy model and another spot with actor Michael J. Fox speaking out in favor of stem-cell research on behalf of a candidatehave gotten major bounces online and on 24-hour cable news, where they've been played ad infinitum. Going into the final six days of campaigning, both ads have stirred intense debate, and both are likely to remain very much an issue on Election Day.
By now, many people have seen the Tennessee ad, a 30-second spot featuring actors playing Tennessee residents on the street explaining why they'll vote for Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. for the seat held by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who's stepping down to consider a run for president. The ad, paid for by the Republican National Committee, is a spoof.
"Ford's right," says one man, bedecked in camouflage. "I do have too many guns." Adds another man in overalls and a handlebar mustache, "Canada can take care of North Korea. They're not busy."
It's a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman with bare shoulders, however, who has generated most of the controversy. The actress says she met Harold "at a Playboy party." The spot closes with her looking into the camera and putting her hand to her ear as though she were holding a telephone: "Harold," she coos. "Call me!"
Some observers have seized on the ad for playing to discomfort over interracial dating. (Ford is from one of Memphis's prominent black political families.) The Playboy-sponsored Super Bowl party he went to in Jacksonville, Fla., last year was attended by 3,000 people. Ford, who is single, has since defended himself, telling the press, "I like football; I like girls; and...no apologies for that."
The spot is "playing to a lot of fears," John Geer, a professor at Vanderbilt University and a specialist in political advertising, said last week. Geer said the spot "frankly makes the Willie Horton ad"a 1988 presidential ad featuring a black man who committed a rape and a murder while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison, a furlough linked to the state's then governor, Michael Dukakis"look like child's play."
Ford's Republican opponent, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, called for the bimbo ad to be pulled from the air and claimed he hadn't had anything to do with its content. In the final debate between the two candidates over the weekend, Corker said he was "the only person in this race that has asked for independent expenditure ads to come down." He asked Ford to "join me in asking that all of these ads come down."
The Democrat attacked Corker for allowing the ad to run for over a week.
"If anyone I knew or may have been associated with had anything to do with [an ad like the one with the Playboy bunny]," Ford said in the final debate, "the ad would have been down an hour after I learned [about it]."
Ford is out with another ad this week where he stands in a kitchen and attacks Corker for the personal tone of the attacks and for going after the Ford family.
"This election is about familyyours. And I'll never forget that," Ford says into the camera, shortly after pointing out that "Tennessee families are struggling" with healthcare, the Iraq war, and the consequences of "broken borders." Near the beginning, Ford tells the audience, "If I had a dog, [Corker would] probably kick him too."
In Missouri, an ad featuring Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, has become its own flashpoint. In the ad, Fox speaks out in favor of Democratic nominee Claire McCaskill, who backs a state ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to allow for expansion of stem cell research in Missouri.
Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh set off a firestorm of criticism when he said that Fox, who bobs and weaves back and forth in the spot, "was either off the medication or he was acting." McCaskill is trying to unseat Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who Fox says "opposes expanding stem cell research" and "even tried to criminalize the science that gives [sufferers of terminal illness] a chance for hope."
"They say all politics is local, but it's not always the case," Fox says at the close of the ad. "What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans. Americans like me."
The ad ran in the second game of the World Series, in which the St. Louis Cardinals were playing. For Game 4 several nights later, opponents of the initiative aired their own ad. A flurry of celebritiesincluding Jim Caviezel, the lead in the movie The Passion of the Christ; St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner; Everybody Loves Raymond actress Patricia Heaton; and Jeff Suppan, the starting pitcher that night for the Cardinalsappeared in the spot.
The initiative "claims it bans human cloning," says Suppan. "But in the 2,000 words you don't read, it makes cloning a constitutional right."
Heaton contends that poor women will be lured into donating their eggs to fertility clinics for money. The painful procedure involved, another person ads, has already resulted in the deaths of 25 women and 6,000 complaints of complications.
Recent polls show that while a majority of Missouri voters back the constitutional amendment, support is down roughly 10 percentage points from levels this summer. An Opinion Research Corp. poll for CNN released Tuesday shows McCaskill and Talent in a dead heat, each with 49 percent of the vote.