Off-Year Shenanigans: What’s a Party Committee to Do?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 11, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

It’s the off year for the House and Senate campaign committees, which means that most of the time is spent on matters like planning, fundraising and candidate recruitment.

But few campaign operatives are entirely content with doing just that. They’d rather stir the political pot whenever possible, hoping that they are laying the groundwork for the time when real voters are paying attention.

That’s the best way to explain some of the very early maneuvering over the years by the Republican and Democratic campaign committees during this political training camp period.

This cycle, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is already stirring the pot in a couple of places. For months, the DSCC has been churning out press releases blasting former Rep. Rob Simmons (R), who has entered the race against Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

On March 16, a DSCC press release demonizing Simmons included a five-year-old quote from him saying that he is a “big fan” of President George W. Bush and that he’s proud to be a Republican.

The release also asserted that Simmons held a fundraiser (in 2004) at a restaurant owned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, accepted contributions from Abramoff and his wife, and accepted contributions from former Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) PAC.

Two weeks later, another DSCC release “congratulated” Simmons for “showing his true colors” by “hobnobbing at Republican headquarters with lobbyists who represent Washington special interests.”

Then, just to make sure that even voters who are illiterate got the message, the DSCC released a Web video on April 2 calling Simmons a “special interest Congressman” and a “special interest candidate,” and chiding him for attending “a meet and greet with lobbyists for Shell, Chevron, and Bank of America.”

On one hand, it’s interesting that Democrats have chosen to attack Simmons on his connection to lobbyists and special interests — Dodd’s greatest weakness and the reason the five-term Senator is performing so horrendously in the polls.

In September, the Hartford Courant wrote that Dodd had collected nearly $6 million over the past two years from PACs and employees of finance-related firms. Since then, the incumbent Democrat has been linked in unflattering ways to disgraced mortgage lender Countrywide Financial and even to American International Group, the embattled insurance and financial services company.

You might think that it’s crazy for Democrats to bring up ethics, lobbyists and Washington insiders where Dodd is concerned. Shouldn’t Democrats want the Connecticut Senate race to be about something where Dodd actually looks good? No, say a number of consultants I spoke with about the tactic.

They note that the DSCC’s strategy is right out of the campaign textbook: Convince voters that there is no difference on ethics and lobbyists between Dodd and Simmons, and voters will make their vote choice on other matters, including party, where Dodd has a significant advantage.

But observers also note something both very obvious but often ignored: Nobody is paying attention now except political insiders. Of course, as one Democratic observer reminded me, the DSCC’s audience isn’t primarily Connecticut voters — it is journalists and the “chattering class.”

When I watched the video on YouTube recently, it had recorded just over 2,100 views — hardly an indication that Connecticut voters are receiving the message.

Nothing drove home the point that most real people aren’t paying attention to press releases and Web videos more than the DSCC’s recent “media buy” in Florida last week.

In an April 29 press release, the DSCC trumpeted that its “first ad buy of the 2010 election cycle” was a “hard-hitting spot” direct against potential Senate candidate and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R).

Along with a transcript of the ad, accompanied by a description of the visuals, the release included four paragraphs lambasting Crist for everything from “a very casual work ethic” to the state’s unemployment rate.

In fact, that ad ran only in Tallahassee (the media market accounts for less than 5 percent of the state voters) and the TV buy was microscopic.

Technically, “Mess,” the name of the anti-Crist spot, was the first TV spot aired. But anyone who follows campaigns knows that this was a phantom buy, a phony buy. Voters don’t care about this now, so why should anyone run a real TV buy? And, in fact, the DSCC didn’t.

The DSCC’s audience for the TV spot was Crist himself and Tallahassee insiders. The committee hoped to get him thinking what a campaign would be like and, as one party operative told me, “chip away in Washington, D.C., at the perception that he is untouchable.”

National Democrats are so worried that their chances in the Florida Senate race will nose-dive if Crist gets in that they are trying to do anything they can to dissuade him from becoming a candidate — even a phantom TV buy inflated by media coverage.

The campaign committees do these sorts of things — in this case it’s the DSCC but other committees have run phony ad campaigns before — to manipulate reporters who are so eager to jump on a story that they don’t even discriminate between real news and phony news.

That’s probably reason enough for journalists to be more discriminating when writing about early ad buys, as well as about early campaign developments in general.