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Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Democrats' game plan divide and conquer

Democrats' game plan to hold the House: Divide and conquer
Pennsylvania’s open 7th District Democratic nominee Bryan Lentz is pictured. | AP Photo
Democrat Bryan Lentz admits his campaign helped a tea party candidate get on the ballot. | AP


KASIE HUNT | 10/27/10 4:56 AM EDT Updated: 10/27/10 9:17 AM EDT


With just six days left until Election Day, a key component of the Democratic strategy to hold the House is becoming clear: In more than a dozen close races, Democrats are encouraging and advancing little-known, conservative third-party candidates in an attempt to fracture the Republican vote enough to eke out narrow victories.

Behind-the-scenes collaboration between local Democratic officials and tea party activists in a handful of isolated races has already been reported—just last week, in suburban Pennsylvania’s open 7th District, Democratic nominee Bryan Lentz finally admitted his campaign’s role in helping a tea party candidate get on the November ballot after months of avoiding the question. 

But the divide-and-conquer strategy has become more widespread—and coordinated—through television ads, robo-calls and mailers in recent weeks as races have tightened and it’s become more apparent that just a few percentage points could end up swinging the outcome in many races.

“It wouldn’t be the first time that Democrats or Republicans have tried to manipulate votes on the other side. Clearly the goal there is to get Republicans to vote for the tea party person to move numbers off Republicans,” said John Anzalone, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster. “I think that it’s going to work in some places. It’s a case by case.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and two state Democratic parties have paid for mailers sent to GOP households in at least five contested House districts in Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Texas —mail pieces that highlight the staunchly conservative positions of long-shot candidates who barely register in public and private polls.

The messaging in the mailers is designed to muddy the waters. In a DCCC piece sent into the San Antonio-area 23rd District, head shots of Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, Republican challenger Francisco Canseco and little-known independent candidate Craig Stephens are positioned side-by-side for comparative purposes.

Rodriguez is said to support “tax relief for the middle class.” Stephens “favors dramatically reducing taxes.” Canseco, on the other hand, “favors raising your taxes.”

Stephens’s other positions, as detailed by the mailer, are also designed for maximum appeal to the tea party constituency.

“Craig Stephens will fight to make drastic cuts to government spending, get tough on border security, and stop illegal immigration,” his profile reads. “In Washington Stephens will make deep cuts to taxes and work to reduce the size of the IRS.”

The DCCC doesn’t admit there is a strategic design to the mailers and instead insists the party is simply engaged in identifying candidates who are outside of the mainstream.

“Voters need to know just how extreme these tea party candidates are,” said Ryan Rudominer, a DCCC spokesman.

While it’s true that some mailers dropped into congressional districts are ostensibly critical of the third-party candidates, the mere mention of the unknown candidates serves to elevate their name recognition. 

In Colorado’s Western Slope-based 3rd District, where Democratic Rep. John Salazar, one of Anzalone’s clients, is in a close race with GOP nominee Scott Tipton, a DCCC mailer features Libertarian Gregory Gilman on an American flag background and warns that Gilman’s “first act would be to drastically reduce the size of government.”

Like Stephens in Texas, according to the Federal Election Commission, Gilman has reported no financial activity this campaign.

Anzalone calls Gilman and another third-party candidate, Jake Segrest, “very helpful” to Salazar.

“A number of these tea party candidates and other independent candidates have filled a void that some Republicans have been looking for and felt have been lacking in their candidates,” said Achim Bergmann, a Democratic strategist who has worked for the DCCC.

“There are some places where a Democrat may be capped at what percentage they can achieve at 47, 48 percent – and when it comes to that, the independent candidates end up having a huge impact, whether it could be two or three points, that makes a big difference,” Bergmann said.

Direct mail isn’t the only avenue Democrats have used to publicize the presence of third-party candidates. In Southern California’s 45th District, Democrat Steve Pougnet’s campaign recently paid for an automated call promoting American Independent candidate Bill Lussenheide as “the true conservative tea party candidate.”

In the Southside Virginia-based seat he won narrowly in 2008, Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello has run at least two television ads featuring images of conservative Jeff Clark despite the fact that Clark barely registers in polling matchups with Republican nominee Robert Hurt and Perriello.

After Perriello also sent out a mailer that included quotes from unsuccessful 5th District GOP candidates praising Clark as “the true conservative,” one of those quoted responded by accusing the congressman of sabotage.

“I am quite frankly appalled at Tom Perriello’s recent desperate attempts to split the Republican Party, and his vain attempt to get conservatives in the 5th District not to vote for Robert Hurt,” said conservative Jim McKelvey in a statement. “Unlike what Tom Perriello would like us to believe in both his goofy mailers and ridiculous television ads, Jeff Clark is not the alternative, and Congressman Perriello is no conservative.”

Democratic strategist David Plouffe, the architect of President Obama’s 2008 campaign, acknowledged the importance of third-party candidates in a briefing with reporters earlier this month—and said it means many Democrats could win with as little as 47 percent of the vote, “which in this year, is something we are happy about,” he said.

Republicans insist the strategy of propping up minor candidates is a classic political dirty trick aimed at tipping close races for Democrats.

“Democratic incumbents realize they won’t win reelection by their own merits alone…[so] they’ve stooped so low and resorted to unscrupulous and desperate tactics like these to deceive, mislead and lie,” said Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

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