Political attack ads can be more complex than they seem | PostIndependent.com

Political attack ads can be more complex than they seem

A selection of television ads paid for by independent political advocacy groups attacking U.S. Senate candidates Cory Grdner and Mark Udall. Top left: anti-Gardner from Senate Majority PAC. Top right: Anti-Udall from Americans for Prosperity Bottom left: anti-Udall from National Republican Senatorial Committee. Bottom right: anti-Gardner from the Environmental Defense Action Fund.(Graphic by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News)
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News | Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Television campaign attack ads dominating airwaves across the state depict Colorado’s senatorial candidates as extreme, harmful and woefully out of step with their fellow Coloradans.

Crossroads GPS, a conservative political action committee headed by former Bush operative Karl Rove, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee portray U.S. Sen. Mark Udall as a hapless sycophant of President Obama. Their ads assert that Udall’s clueless support of the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — has harmed Coloradans one and all.

Liberal groups like the Senate Majority PAC and Next Generation Climate Action show Udall’s opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, as a grim-faced misogynist, whose views on issues important to women are medieval, at best.

Udall-Gardner, not incidentally, is one of the races expected to determine which party controls the U.S. Senate after the Nov. 4 election. So far, the outside groups have spent almost three times as much as the candidates themselves.

“If you run around the country there are maybe 10 states that have really competitive races and Republicans need to win six Senate seats to win the Senate — Colorado is very competitive,” said political analyst Floyd Ciruli. “It’s not quite a Super Bowl, that’d be the presidential race — but we’re in a very major, close playoff.”

And it may come as no surprise that millions are being spent by outside organizations to paint the two Colorado candidates into very dark corners.

But what might be surprising is comparing funders of the negative attacks with what their primary interests truly are.

A Rocky Mountain PBS I-News analysis of Federal Communications Commission and Federal Election Commission data, as well as reports collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, demonstrate how the playbook works.

First, use polarizing issues to ignite voters.

Thomas Steyer, a California billionaire who has drawn attention for his philanthropy and activism for environmental causes, has mastered this first play.

Steyer is the lead financial backer for Next Generation Climate Action, which has so far spent more than $1 million in this state’s largest television markets, Denver and Colorado Springs.

Two of the most widely aired ads from Streyer’s organization — named “Keep Out” and “Not Extreme?” — assault Gardner for his positions against birth control and abortion and same-sex marriage — all highly polarizing issues.

But Next Generation Climate Action does not, as an organization, list any interest in policies related to abortion, marriage equality or birth control. To be fair, the ads do briefly mention climate change, scoffing that Gardner “thinks he knows better than the scientists, NASA and the U.S. military on climate change.”

“It is a straight-out brawling competition,” Ciruli said. “The people who play it may be personally idealistic, but in the way they play the game they are totally realists, and research shows them that climate change is not nearly as effective at moving voters as things like reproductive rights.”

Similarly, other groups whose primary interests are oil and gas development or the energy business attack Udall’s support of the Affordable Care Act. While their true concern might be approval for the Keystone pipeline, as an example, they’re betting that Obamacare is still such a negatively charged issue that it can help sink the environmentally minded Udall.

Sometimes they might mention energy issues, but not as a primary focus.

The second power play works by cloaking one’s self-interests in charitable or nonprofit political giving, as modern masters Sheldon Adelson and David and Charles Koch have demonstrated.

Adelson and his wife, Mariam, donated $23 million during the 2012 presidential cycle to Crossroads GPS on behalf of the non-profit Adelson Drug Clinic and Adelson’s corporation, Las Vegas Sands, according to files from the Federal Election Commission.

Sheldon Adelson, listed as the eighth-wealthiest man on earth by Forbes, with a net worth of more than $31 billion, has nonetheless drawn wide attention to his heavy contributions to campaign finance. He has also been litigating a federal lawsuit aimed at his overseas casinos.

Similarly, David and Charles Koch have been intimately linked with Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, and Crossroads GPS in the past, but their contributions this cycle are not known.

“Non-profit political groups do not have to disclose donors,” Viveka Novak, editorial and communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, explained. “So we could only identify organizations that filed 990s (non-profit tax forms) and that wouldn’t include individuals or corporations, so there are still a lot of donors or donations no one would know about.”

Adelson, the Koch Brothers and many other politically active billionaires and multimillionaires across the political spectrum, are able to maintain privacy and give endless money following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which held that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

There’s still another trick in the playbook, and that’s playing both sides. By contributing to competing candidates, it can be hard to lose, the reasoning goes.

Hedge funds and international investment banks are among the leading campaign contributors in the United States — and they donate in almost equal amounts to both Democrat and Republican committees.

Consider Renaissance Technologies, a New York hedge fund that in 2013 managed an estimated $25 billion. This year, the founder and retired chief executive officer, James H. Simons was ranked by Forbes among the world’s wealthiest people at $12.5 billion. Of the millions of dollars Simons and the current CEO of Renaissance, Robert Mercer, have donated to campaign groups so far this year, about $3 million went to liberal organizations, and $3 million went to conservatives.

“This firm, it’s got money everywhere, it’s invested in things that could benefit from both parties,” Ciruli said. “Some of it could just be personal, but often it is driven by a strategy that just makes sense.”

This company’s lobbying records in 2014 show that its primary focus is to avoid higher tax rates for hedge funds — an issue almost totally ignored in the majority of Colorado’s campaign ads. In fact, of more than 30 ads reviewed by I-News and truth tested by 9News, only one ad even briefly mentioned “tax rates for companies overseas.”

The Blackstone Group is also a top hedge fund contributor to both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

These committees have already spent $3.9 million and $1.7 million, respectively, on campaign ads in Denver, bashing either Gardner or Udall.

“TV ads are number one, the overwhelming most important tool in winning one of these campaigns,” Ciruli said. “If Channel 9 has another minute, you can bet it will get bought.”

The Post Independent brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news. Contact Katie Kuntz at katiekuntz@rmpbs.org. I-News reporter Burt Hubbard contributed to this story.

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