TAMPA — The dirt — specifically dirty diapers — is flying in Florida’s race for governor.
In one television commercial, newcomer Rick Scott suggests his GOP primary opponent, the state attorney general and a former congressman, should be thrown out like a baby’s dirty diaper. “Bill McCollum’s record stinks,” a female narrator says over an image of a squirming infant’s swaddled bottom.
In response, McCollum criticizes Scott for the record settlement his former hospital company paid to settle Medicare fraud charges. McCollum claims his opponent was “ripping off taxpayers.” He looks into the camera in his ad and addresses Scott as if he were in the room: “You put profit over principle, and that’s wrong.”
Floridians can’t watch television for very long this summer without seeing one candidate tear down the other. Wealthy tea party favorite Scott has spent more than $20 million of his own fortune so far on campaign advertising. McCollum and his allies, determined not to let the criticism go unanswered, are firing back.
The use of attack ads in the Florida contest as well as races in Arizona, Nevada and a handful of other states raises questions candidates and campaigns have struggled to answer for decades: Are negative commercials effective in defining an opponent or do they cost the sponsor of the ad as well by turning off voters?
As a rule, political operatives believe negative ads work. But they are aware of the pitfalls and often use humor or a soothing voiceover to take the edge off a commercial’s tone.
Around the country, establishment and anti-establishment candidates are using ads to attack each other as sinister, incompetent, amoral or almost criminal.
n Arizona Sen. John McCain, facing a Republican primary challenge from the right, has hit J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman trying to tap into anti-Washington sentiment, with a commercial labeling him a “huckster.” It’s based on Hayworth’s appearance in an infomercial pitching free government money on behalf of a company accused of swindling customers out of thousands of dollars. Hayworth’s wife Mary says in a recent ad that McCain “sold out the people of Arizona on immigration, bailouts and tax increases. Now John McCain has embraced character assassination to keep his job. John McCain should be ashamed.”
n In Nevada, Republican Senate candidate and tea party favorite Sharron Angle has been the target of a barrage of attack ads, first from a failed primary rival and now from Democrats trying to keep Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in office. One made fun of Angle’s support of a Church of Scientology program that supposedly uses massage and sauna therapy to reduce inmate violence behind bars. The ad depicts a burly con getting a massage before kissing the tattoo on his arm — a caricature of Angle’s face and the words, “Thanks Sharron.”
n In Vermont, Republican Len Britton, challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, is running a commercial depicting a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-style delivery to a mom and her kids. But instead of a big check, it’s an invoice for $168,000 — the family’s share of the national debt. Britton comes on and says, “Pat Leahy and his friends in Washington have run up quite a tab, creating deficits we may never be able to repay.”
David D. Perlmutter, director of the journalism school at the University of Iowa and an expert on political communication, sums it up: “Negative is the new normal.”
He compares the evolution of attack ads with movie audiences who have come to expect more exciting action sequences and better special effects each time they walk into the theater.
“Last year’s level of negativity is almost not enough,” he said. “It’s almost like you have to raise it up a notch each time.”
In Florida, Scott entered the race in April after McCollum had already been anointed by the state GOP establishment to succeed Gov. Charlie Crist. Scott’s immediate and frequent presence on TV commercials and anti-establishment message helped him surge ahead in the polls in the spring.
Scott made a fortune building the massive Columbia/HCA hospital chain in the 1990s only to be forced out by his board amid a Medicaid/Medicare fraud investigation that saw the company pay a record $1.7 billion settlement after he was gone. He has said repeatedly that he didn’t know about any wrongdoing and was never charged with a crime. McCollum says the 57-year-old Scott is either dishonest or a terrible CEO who didn’t see fraud going on under his nose.
Scott, who moved to Florida seven years ago from Connecticut, has effectively hung the career politician label on the McCollum, a state GOP stalwart who has twice run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate.
His ads have hit McCollum for his chummy relationship with a former state Republican Party chief who was charged in a fraud scandal, and has made effective use of a McCollum sound bite saying he didn’t support Arizona’s tough new immigration law. McCollum said he now supports an amended version of the law.
Absent from the Scott- McCollum commercials is any talk of the likely Democratic nominee Alex Sink, who is locked in a close race with both Republicans in recent polls.
That could be a good thing for Sink, Florida’s chief financial officer, whose campaign is just starting to get some traction.