If you like negative political ads, then these next 17 months are for you. If you don’t, turn off the TV, or at least get ready to use your DVR.
That’s because Sen. Mark Pryor is part of that rare breed in Washington: an endangered incumbent senator. In the 11 years since he last faced a Republican opponent, Arkansas has been transformed from a state dominated by Democrats to one where the GOP is ascendant. That trend is almost certain to continue if not accelerate – especially with President Obama, who is very unpopular here, remaining in office.
A lot of people are smelling blood in the water, even though the election is still 17 months away. A group called Senate Conservatives Action is releasing three television ads and a radio ad calling Pryor a liberal and tying him to Obama. The group wants to define Pryor in the minds of voters, put him on the defensive, and force him to defend himself using some of the $2 million he collected during the first quarter of 2013.
Meanwhile, a group financed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been running $350,000 worth of ads criticizing Pryor for his vote against legislation that would have required background checks at gun shows. Predictably, Pryor took a swing at that big, fat softball by releasing his own ad declaring, "No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do. I listen to Arkansas."
Frankly, he ought to write Bloomberg a check for giving him a chance to say that line.
While Bloomberg and Senate Conservatives Action have different agendas, they have one thing in common: wheelbarrows full of money. Bloomberg is a billionaire. SCA is a super PAC. That means it can raise unlimited money to support or oppose candidates as long as it doesn’t donate directly to their campaigns – which, of course, isn’t necessary when they have the same goals. According to the website OpenSecrets.org, super PACs raised more than $800 million and spent more than $600 million during the 2012 campaign cycle.
There’s nothing wrong with a group spending money to encourage Americans to believe a certain way about politics. They have the freedom to speak; voters have the freedom to think.
Moreover, there have been much worse negative ads than these. The Senate Conservatives ads feature Arkansans sharing their opinions about Pryor based on his actual votes on big issues, including his vote for Obamacare. There are no ominous narrators or scary music, though the ads do feature the obligatory unflattering photo of Pryor surrounded by roiling dark clouds. The woman featured in the Bloomberg ad refers to the shooting of Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Bill Gwatney at the party’s headquarters – a wound that shouldn’t have been reopened for political purposes. However, like the Senate Conservatives ad, we see her on screen as she makes her case rather than hearing some anonymous voice.
But we know what’s coming, don’t we? Arkansans can prepare themselves for a barrage of ads that would leave Pryor’s and his opponents’ grandmothers questioning their own votes for them. And thanks to all this money, it’s happening much earlier than in the past.
Didn’t we just have an election? The Founding Fathers created a rhythm to this democracy – campaign every two years, and then govern while still listening to the people. With the vast amounts of money involved now, the campaign never ends, and governing is simply a taxpayer-subsidized part of that. There’s a reason why this past Congress passed 284 bills while proposing 12,299. Much of the rest was just for show – to be able to tell us one side voted for something while the other voted against something.
What’s a voter to do in these times? Use these ads as a tool, but follow up with more than 30 seconds’ worth of research. And treat this upcoming election as a job interview. We wouldn’t hire someone based on a brief video promoting themselves by criticizing others, so we shouldn’t vote like that.
Also, the interview wouldn’t last 17 months. Get ready for the ads, and get ready to take them with a grain of salt.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.