Fear and loathing in the nastiest campaign ever

From Barack Obama as the Angel of Death to accusations of Tea Party witchcraft – the midterm election propaganda battle has stooped to new lows

David Usborne
Wednesday 20 October 2010 00:00 BST

With two weeks until midterm elections that promise to leave the Democrats battered and probably deprived of their majority in the House of Representatives, voters are yearning for the return of TV ads about cars and cat food. That's because the blizzard of political spots they are seeing now is arguably the most consistently nasty ever.

It seems especially relentless in this election year because of recent relaxation by the US Supreme Court of funding rules, giving corporations free range to donate money to issue advocacy groups – and to do so anonymously. With that money those groups can run ads favouring one or another candidate in races.

A record $3bn (£2bn) will have been spent on advertising by the time voters enter the booths on 2 November by candidates and by outside organisations. By a 5 to 1 ratio, they have been funding spots that favour Republicans over Democrats.

A stand-out among negative ads comes courtesy of a group called Personhood USA. Running in Colorado to support a ballot initiative to tighten abortion laws in the state, it likens President Barack Obama to the Angel of Death. A billboard in the same state shows Mr Obama in four guises at once: a gangster, homosexual, terrorist and Mexican immigrant. No one has owned up to it, however.

While a study by the Wesleyan Media Project says the proportion of negative vs positive advertisements in this campaign is roughly similar to what happened in 2008, more of the negative attacks have a personal slant than usual.

"Fourteen per cent of attack ads in 2008, through early October, were focused solely on the personal characteristics of the candidate's opponent. That number has jumped to 20 per cent this year," notes Michael Franz, a co-director at the Wesleyan project. "This trend is suggestive of more anger in political advertising."

Candidates are often forced to defend themselves, though not always with another negative spot. In Delaware, the Tea Party-backed Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell was forced to run ads responding to old clips of her suggesting an interest in witchcraft. "I am not a witch". Yesterday, Ms O'Donnell astonished the audience at a debate with the Democrat Chris Coons when she expressed surprise that the Constitution requires separation of church and state. "You're telling me that's in the First Amendment?" she asked.

In Nevada, Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader who is in a tight race against another Tea Party candidate, has been accused in ads of being the "best friend" of illegal immigrants. In Illinois, the Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Brady has been branded a "puppy killer", while in Kentucky the libertarian Senate candidate Rand Paul is striking back at ads that suggested he "mocked Christianity".

"In part it just reflects the volatility and anger and ... disgust of the electorate," explains the New York-based Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein. "They have nothing left," he adds, noting that the national mood towards both parties on Capitol Hill is as sour as ever.

Mr Obama has tried to use the issue of confidential donations to campaign groups as an issue to drive Democrat turnout. "They don't have the courage to stand up and disclose their identities. They could be insurance companies or Wall Street banks or even foreign-owned corporations," he said recently.

Two groups that have surfaced as wielding significant influence in this campaign have included Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads. Both espouse conservative agendas and both have the former George Bush adviser Karl Rove as a top backer.

Video Nasties

The Taliban connection Alan Grayson, a Democrat incumbent in Florida, wants voters to know that his Republican challenger, Dan Webster, has extreme views on religion and women's rights. The clip claims he opposes abortion for victims of rape. The tagline? "Taliban Dan Webster". At least it rhymes.

The Angel of Death This grotesque spot urges voters in Colorado to support a ballot initiative to ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest. After running through the "villains" who have loosened the law, the ad finally brings us to The Angel of Death, which morphs into Barack Obama. "And Hell follows with him", the message runs.

The revenge of Dorothy The little girl from Kansas faces awful peril in this camp rehash of the Wizard of Oz. Oh my, here comes the Wicked Witch of the West and, oh no, it's actually the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Enter John Dennis, her Republican challenger in San Francisco. The witch is slain. The spot is so terribly acted and produced, it's hilariously memorable.

The anti-Christian Tea Party darling Rand Paul was seriously upset when his opponent in Kentucky, Jack Conway, ran this spot accusing him of belonging to a "secret society" that "mocked Christianity" and called the Bible "a hoax". He refused to shake Conway's hand at a debate and ran an ad accusing him of deploying "gutter politics".

The cleansing process Just occasionally, a sense of humour surfaces. Want to wash off the venom and bile of 2010? Join John Hickenlooper, who wants to be the next Governor of Colorado – in the tub. "I guess I'm not a very good politician if I can't stand negative ads," he says. "Every time I see one, I want to take a shower."

The puppy killer Everyone loves animals – except, the Illinois Governor Pat Quinn wants you to know, his challenger Bill Brady. Quinn aired a spot accusing Brady of being a puppy killer because he had supported new laws allowing for canine euthanasia. Filled with sad looking pooches and a gruesome soundtrack, it may well be effective.

The non-witch Sometimes you have to strike back, and this was particularly urgent for Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party candidate in Delaware, thanks to old clips of her admitting to having mixed in her youth with friends who were witches. "I'm not a witch. I'm not what you've heard," she says. "I'm you." The voters may disagree.

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