Toxic electioneering drips down to local level

In this not-so-brave new world of super PACs, electioneering organizations and cloaked campaign donors, the U.S. Supreme Court's pivotal Citizens United ruling has unleashed mountains of cash into our political process -- clouding issues, distorting candidates and swaying voters. As the campaign leading up to Tuesday's primary vote proved, the fallout has drifted down to the local level.

It ain't pretty. Civility appears to be on life support.

While national and state contests have long lived on negative campaigning, the descent to regional and county races shows a further coarsening of the political process.

This is an extreme disservice to voters and an insult to civility.

Two local races fell victim to independent political operatives, plunging into a toxic stew.

In the Ed Brodsky-Peter Lombardo contest for the GOP nomination for state attorney in the 12th Judicial Circuit, a Siesta Key multimillionaire pumped more than $200,000 into TV ads and mailers casting Brodsky as somehow complicit in the 2007 murder of a Bradenton man.

The ludicrous accusation likely tightened up a race that the heavily favored Brodsky won by less than 800 votes out of some 25,000 cast.

In the Betsy Benac-Joe McClash contest for the Republican nomination for the District 7 seat on the Manatee County Commission, fliers and robocalls cast the incumbent in a disparaging light.

An electioneering organization called Take Back Our Government, registered to former Sarasota Republican Party Chairman Robert Waechter, was responsible.

Funded mostly by development-related companies, the organization took shots at McClash over his online publication's editorial positions, opposition to certain development projects, among other reasons.

McClash was rightly aghast at the campaign, describing it as "political corrupt practices" in a Thursday report by the Herald's Sara Kennedy.

One would have to be naive to believe Take Back Our Government did not influence the outcome. Whether that shifted the tide, though, cannot be determined. But Benac's slim margin of victory -- by a mere 494 votes -- could easily lead to that conclusion.

Benac has stated her campaign is not responsible for the fliers and robocalls.

These independent electioneering organizations can mount all sorts of campaigns outside a candidate's control. Intentional or not, that provides candidates with political cover.

Frankly, candidates should distance themselves from this sort of dirty politics by publicly disavowing the messages.

Out in the public, Benac held her ground in combative forums with McClash, rebutting his baseless accusations about her being bought by developers. Benac is an expert in land-use regulations with experience in both the public and private sectors. She has a reputation of being tough on developers during her tenure with Manatee County government.

Face-to-face debates with a focus on the issues serve voters best -- even bare-knuckled fights like the ones from Benac and McClash.

Until voters rise up en masse and demand strong laws that require total and immediate transparency and that eliminate unlimited campaign contributions, the stench emanating from Citizens United will continue to poison our elections. Welcome to this new world of political skunks.