A radio advertisement in Oregon’s GOP Senate primary between Monica Wehby and Jason Conger set a new standard for insidious genius. It’s no “Boats ‘N Hoes” scandal, but it’s a template for underhanded campaigning in the future.
The winner in the May primary will face Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in November.
The spot targets Conger, a state representative with support among hard-core conservatives.
Establishment-favorite Wehby, a Portland pediatric neurosurgeon, did not purchase or produce the ad. It was an independent expenditure by a political action committee. It even says so at the end. “Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”
That’s their story, and their sticking to it.
National media have picked up on the fact that Andrew Miller, one of the super PAC’s organizers and major contributors, is romantically involved with Wehby. MSNBC calls it the “most romantic political contribution ever.” Miller gave $31,000, and another GOP donor chipped in $75,000.
Super PACs may not coordinate with candidates. Miller insists there’s been neither pillow talk nor dinner conversation about how he would spend $106,000 supporting Wehby’s campaign.
Pundits have skewered this ludicrous claim. It’s just one more example of the broken campaign finance system post-Citizens United.
What the pundits have missed, however, is the ad’s audacious genius. Everyone loves a love story, but the legacy of this ad will be something more than one more PAC flaunting coordination rules.
The 60-second ad tries to convince Republicans that Conger is a RINO — Republican In Name Only. A woman narrates some of his controversial votes in the legislature. (It’s worth listening to the whole thing just for the hilarious intonation alone.)
“Republican Jason Conger voted five times with Democrats for Oregon’s Obamacare,” it says.
It fails to mention that Conger cast those votes holding his nose. They weren’t for the Affordable Care Act but to ensure Oregon created its own exchange lest the feds take over. That the state exchange has been a complete disaster is a separate issue.
The ad cites a few other votes without context. These sorts of blunt statements that lack nuance are typical attack-ad fare.
Finally there’s the disclosure that we’re all used to hearing: “Paid for by,” here’s the genius bit, “If he votes like that in Salem, imagine how he will vote in Congress.”
Huh? That’s just more attack, not a disclosure. Miller actually named his committee: “If he votes like that in Salem, imagine how he will vote in Congress.” Brilliant.
The “Paid for by” bit is supposed to help listeners know who is dumping money into political ads, but the rules don’t say you have to pick a helpful name. Substance and disclosure waste precious airtime better filled with one more attack.
It’s campaign evolution. Remember when candidates had to start saying, “I’m Joe Smith, and I approved this message,” at the end? Then it became, “I’m Joe Smith, and I approved this message because my opponent hates America.”
The anti-Conger ad just took it to the next level. A descriptive name or the identities of donors would help people identify who is buying an election. A creative name provides a shroud of secrecy and more messaging. Most people don’t have the time or expertise to dig through Federal Election Commission filings to figure out who is really behind the money.
The radio-spot ups the obfuscation, too, by getting the PAC’s name wrong. It’s actually “If he votes like that in Salem imagine what he will do in Congress.” It’s harder to search the FEC when you don’t even have the right name. (The ad says “how he will vote,” not “what he will do.”)
The possibilities are endless. Come 2016, we might see the “Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi” and “End the war on women” committees form. They’ll spend millions, and few people will ever know who’s really pulling the strings.
Congress or the Federal Election Commission will not fix this any time soon. There’s a genuine free speech concern about the right to name committee’s whatever one wants, but that won’t be the real cause of inaction. Rather, politicians win or lose by the financial support they receive. If they can help those donors and spenders stay on message with a fair degree of anonymity, so much the better.
My name is Chris Trejbal, and I approve of this attack ad.