Against the Grain

Republican Attack Ads Overwhelmed by the Democratic Wave

The Congressional Leadership Fund’s ad blitz improved GOP fortunes in several critical campaigns. But with so many races in play, Democrats are still well-positioned to win back the House majority.

Gil Cisneros
AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu
Sept. 25, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a deep-pocketed super PAC working to help Republicans hold control of the House, took an unconventional approach in its midterm strategy. The group determined that, given the bleak national environment for Republicans, plus a crop of compelling Democratic challengers, it was imperative to attack aggressively early instead of waiting for the waning days of a campaign to unleash the strongest material.

So in August, when many voters were on vacation, the mud started flying. One ad went after New York Democrat Antonio Delgado for using incendiary rhetoric when he was a rapper. Another slammed military veteran Amy McGrath for a litany of liberal comments she made during the primary. In California, the group aired uncomfortable allegations of sexual harassment against a well-funded Democratic recruit. The brother of the Democratic nominee in Paul Ryan’s district declared on camera that his sibling was unfit for office. In at least 20 districts, CLF was the first group to go on the airwaves to define the terms of the debate.

“We’re supposed to be the hammer. The most important thing Republican incumbents can do to survive in a tough environment is to raise a lot of money and give their people a reason to vote for them,” said CLF Executive Director Corry Bliss.

The results of the GOP offensive paint a mixed picture. In a handful of pivotal races, the group’s opposition research changed the trajectory of the campaign, perhaps salvaging several seats that once looked lost. But in a sign of how challenging the political landscape is for Republicans, most of the targeted Democrats are still in a solid position to win—with the GOP’s best opposition material used up.

Republicans tracking the group’s strategy argue that the aggressive approach has had the greatest effect in conservative-minded districts where voters support Trump but the Republican members are unusually unpopular. The approach has been less effective in swing suburban districts where a critical mass of voters is eager to cast Democratic ballots to place a check on an unpopular president. In these races, many of the incumbents are personally popular but still face daunting deficits.

The Kentucky contest between GOP Rep. Andy Barr and McGrath is the CLF's biggest success story. McGrath, whose distinguished military background brought her bipartisan support, started the general election with a double-digit lead over the embattled incumbent. But as Republicans aired ads showing her on camera embracing positions that are out of line with the district, on issues from abortion to immigration, her numbers began sinking.

An early-September polling memo released by the CLF showed that the ads helped turn Barr’s 13-point deficit (38-51) in June into a 4-point lead this month (49-45). McGrath’s once-sterling image, with 55 percent of voters viewing her favorably, turned into one (45 percent favorable, 34 percent unfavorable) that isn’t much different than a conventional politician's profile.

The group’s ad campaigns have been similarly effective against Democratic nominee Gil Cisneros in California, who faced an accusation of sexual harassment during the primary that was never resolved. Each of the CLF's three ads reference allegations of Cisneros’s misconduct, including one featuring a woman speaking to the camera about the details. CLF’s internal polling found his image at plus-12 before the ads ran; a September Monmouth poll in the district found him with an underwater (minus-1) favorability rating and losing to Republican Young Kim by 4 points.

The most effective attacks are the ones that directly tie a challenger to some specific misconduct. In one of CLF’s toughest ads, the brother of Democratic nominee Randy Bryce speaks out against his brother’s “anti-cop rhetoric” and history of arrests. His GOP opponent, Bryan Steil, reached majority support in a new New York Times poll.

At the same time, CLF ads that simply tag a candidate as too extreme—particularly in swing districts—haven’t resonated at all. An ad campaign hitting Sharice Davids in Kansas for opposing Immigration and Customs Enforcement have barely made a dent in her campaign against Rep. Kevin Yoder. Polls show her with a healthy lead even with the barrage of attacks. Despite being tagged as an Elizabeth Warren-supporting progressive, polls show Katie Porter is running ahead of Republican Rep. Mimi Walters in California's 45th District.

The problem for Republicans is that in such a treacherous political environment, there are so many competitive races (92, by The Cook Political Report’s count) that it’s impossible to discredit a critical mass of Democratic challengers. Many are political outsiders, without a record of votes or policy preferences, leaving Republicans to depend on self-inflicted blunders to doom these candidates.

Every time Republicans feel that they’ve made headway against a weak Democratic challenger, a couple of other GOP-held seats in deeply conservative territory emerge as newfound weak spots. In this game of political Whac-A-Mole, even the most wealthy, ruthless advocacy group can only do so much.

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