Last Friday, incumbent 3rd District Congressional Rep. Anne Northup brought the heat, in much the same way she’s opened fire on each of her previous five opponents. She launched an attack ad that painted opponent John Yarmuth as a monster who favors legalizing marijuana, killing Social Security and increasing taxes.
The charges are drawn from Yarmuth’s columns right here in LEO. Before the Democratic primary, Yarmuth publicly said he’d stand behind every one of his columns if Northup would stand behind her voting record in Congress.
The Northup strategy holds that if voters get a negative picture of her opponent in their minds, then even after the ads are proven to be false and/or distorted versions of facts, the image will stick. It’s straight from the Karl Rove/Radical Right playbook, and it’s something Yarmuth not only should have anticipated, it’s something he should have been prepared for.
For instance, the marijuana reference comes from Nov. 6, 2002 column in which Yarmuth called a Canadian ballot initiative on the drug “entirely sensible.” That’s hardly a campaign plank — it’s about like a man saying, “That’s a nice dress,” and then someone concluding, “Hey, this guy wants to wear dresses.”
Still, Yarmuth missed a golden opportunity. On Friday, while Northup held a press conference announcing she’d created an attack Web site (www.theyarmuthrecord.com) to complement her deluge of attack ads on TV, Yarmuth stayed away while his campaign trotted out a response that merely reinforced negative views of Yarmuth as an “out-there” liberal.
When the Yarmuth campaign organized a makeshift Friday news conference after Northup’s, local TV media were clamoring for a good political story — one with conflict, with candidates engaged in charges and countercharges. It was set to lead at 6 p.m. — barring an upgrade in the strength of a coming thunderstorm.
When they arrived at the Democrats’ press conference, reporters wanted to know one thing: Where was Yarmuth? He wasn’t there; instead, reporters got campaign manager Jason Burke. I don’t know much about Burke, but I can tell you about the image he projected to TV viewers last Friday.
With some sort of goatee and an open-collared shirt, he looked more like an intern pulled from the phone bank than a seasoned political operative sent to counter a well-funded political attack. He told reporters something Yarmuth could have, and should have, said to the media, that the ideas expressed in Northup’s campaign ads were distortions and didn’t represent the candidate’s views.
Yarmuth, who has pledged to take the high road in the campaign, could have used the media opportunity to deflate Northup’s charges by making some of his own. In fact, at a scheduled rally in Louisville the next day, he attacked Northup’s voting record on bridge funding and the VA hospital, and her absence from talks to keep Ford jobs in Louisville.
But by Saturday, the media opportunity was gone. TV crews weren’t interested in Yarmuth’s campaign appearance — they were covering the deluge coming from the skies, interviewing residents forced from their homes by rain.
Worse, Yarmuth told the C-J’s Kay Stewart that he didn’t respond on Friday because he hadn’t seen the Northup ads and didn’t know what he’d be responding to. Seems to me somebody on Yarmuth’s staff needs to make it a priority to let their candidate know what the opposition is doing.
Yarmuth can’t afford to be on the defensive, but with Northup campaign staffers sifting through 15-plus years of his LEO columns to find his yips on issues, that will be the campaign’s central theme. It’s an unprecedented opportunity for what’s known as “opposition research,” and the Northup campaign is on it like a cheap suit.
Since when does an incumbent go on the attack in a Congressional race and set up a Web site designed to rip a challenger’s views? And since when does a challenger avoid television cameras when there’s an opportunity for “free” face time on the nightly news?
In the 1995 movie “The American President,” President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, is repeatedly attacked by his opponent, a totally unlikable and nutty right-winger named Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss). Shepherd, a widow, doesn’t think his choice of girlfriend is a suitable campaign issue, so he ignores it.
Despite pleading from his campaign staff, that fictional president refuses to respond to Rumson’s charges about Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), who has a controversial political past. In the movie, Shepherd ultimately wins by taking the high road, answering Rumson’s charges in a big speech and getting the girl anyway.
The movie’s turning point occurs when Shepherd finally decides he’s had enough and calls Rumson out. Yarmuth might do well to follow that script sooner than later if he wants the 3rd District Congressional campaign to have a Hollywood-style ending.
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Washington Post looks at Middle America
The Washington Post has a team of reporters on the road to cover nine Congressional races along the Ohio River, including the Northup-Yarmuth race and the Mike Sodrel-Baron Hill race in Indiana’s 9th District. To read all of the coverage, go to www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/interactives/ohioriver/