Opinion

Poliquin attack ads are preview of the nastiness to come

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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan may play the part of the earnest Boy Scout on TV, but when it comes to real life he falls far short, particularly when it comes to telling the truth.

Last week, Ryan’s super-PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, let loose with a misleading attack ad aimed at Democrat Jared Golden, who’s running against Ryan-favorite U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.

The ad is part of a national onslaught from the CLF, targeting Democratic challengers in swing districts all over the country.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column took a look at a sampling of the ads, including the smear on Golden. The conclusion wasn’t good for Ryan, Poliquin or their allies.

The Post gave the ads Four Pinocchios, writing: “Even by modern mudslinging standards, these ads by the Congressional Leadership Fund stand out for their dark tone and their strained relationship with the facts. … these attack ads are grossly misleading.”

I worked on Lucas St. Clair’s campaign for Congress; Golden won that Democratic primary. I have no love for Poliquin’s policies or politics. But he should denounce these ads for the garbage that they are.

The Congressional Leadership Fund has said it intends to spend millions of dollars in Maine trying to protect Poliquin, who once again finds himself in a highly contested race for re-election. It’s even opened an office in Maine to try to save Poliquin’s bacon.

The congressman is out of touch with much of his district, with his votes to take health care away from more than 100,000 Mainers and his support for tax cuts that benefit the wealthy at the expense of working families.

The reason that campaigns run negative ads is that they work. For many voters, the only things they know about the candidates are what they see in the ads on TV.

There’s not a lot of news coverage of the campaigns day to day, which has allowed Poliquin to master a strategy of hiding from the voters.

The ads will saturate TV this year. To make sure they have the intended impact, viewers have to see the ads a whole bunch, which means if you watch TV you won’t be able to escape them.

But every TV viewer — every voter — has a chance to make up their own mind about the candidates and the race. If we decide, we can take the power away from Ryan’s political action committee and make our own decisions.

Now, as for the ad itself, the thing that’s received the most attention is the fact that it focuses on Golden’s tattoos — at least on the surface. There’s a close-up of a tattoo on Golden’s right arm in the ad and then the final graphic shows a fake tattoo on a back with Golden’s face.

In ads, a picture really is worth a thousand words, but it’s important to hear the message that this ad is really trying to send.

While it seems to be about taxes and welfare, it’s about a whole lot more.

The language is very much about dividing Mainers into “us” and “them,” and it uses the idea that Golden has tattoos as a way to make him seem like the “other.” And while I might be the only one who sees it, I think the ad also has racist overtones that we will see further exploited by Republicans this fall.

Listen to the words of the ad: “Wasteful handouts for them. Higher taxes for us.”

The last image of the ad, the one featuring the bizarre fake tattoo, includes styling and a font similar to what would stereotypically be part of gang tattoos. An online ad attacking Golden earlier this year used a fake picture of him with gang members.

And Poliquin’s own attack ad against Golden calls him “radical” and “risky.”

It’s just the beginning. I expect the attacks to get much worse, to focus on issues like immigration with heavy racist dog whistles and to try to scare voters into thinking Golden is a caricature of what he really is: A good, decent person. It will be about trying to activate the worst parts of all of us.

This stuff isn’t about policy differences. It’s about dividing our state and winning at all costs.

But voters have the power.

The Boy Scout law tells scouts to be trustworthy: “Tell the truth and keep promises. People can depend on you.”

These ads are just the opposite. And you definitely can’t depend on them.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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