Going negative: Attack ads may be risky in close Democratic contest

Ned Lamont and Dan Malloy have increased their combined television spending to nearly $4 million, gearing up for the closing weeks of what new polling shows to be a competitive Democratic primary for governor.

With both Democrats armed and ready for a TV air war, is the first negative ad about to hit the airwaves? Each camp is warily monitoring the ad buys of the other, looking for signs of an attack.

The candidate to strike first may face a backlash. No wedge issues divide Malloy and Lamont, and Democrats are hungry for winning a governor’s race for the first time since 1986.

“Going negative would be very risky this year,” said Tom Swan, who managed Lamont’s bruising U.S. Senate race in 2006, but is not involved with the present campaign. “Most people in the Democratic Party are really, really desperate to win in November.”

Malloy said he has no plans to change his rotation of ads that focus on his biography and vision for Connecticut. He trails by 9-percentage points in a recent Quinnipiac University poll of likely primary voters, but senses he is closing.

I’m not inclined to change that which is working,”  Malloy said.

“Look, we will respond if attacked,” said Lamont, who has long lamented allowing Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman to define him as “Negative Ned” in their 2006 battle.

But this is a very different race than 2006.

“Four years, ago, there was a very fundamental disagreement between Lamont and Lieberman, literally a life or death issue,” said Dan Gerstein, who was Lieberman’s communication director for the general election.

Lamont’s campaign was built on his opposition to Lieberman’s support for the war in Iraq and for the Republican president who ordered the invasion, George W. Bush. He had ample, substantive material for “contrast ads,” the neutral term for negative commercials.

“There is not that policy difference in this gubernatorial primary,” Gerstein said. “These guys are mostly running bio campaigns. To some degree, it’s reminiscent of the Hillary-Obama campaign.”

Hillary Clinton emphasized her readiness to lead, while Barack Obama offered himself as a symbol and vehicle for change.

Malloy, who was the mayor of Stamford for 14 years, casts himself as ready to lead Connecticut through a fiscal crisis. Lamont is pitching himself as an outsider, the candidate who took on the status quo to challenge Lieberman four years ago.

Without a major wedge or character issue to exploit, a contrast or negative ad runs the risky of being seen as petty, Gerstein said.

“You run the risk of running a negative ad on hairsplitting,” he said. “The danger is you look small compared to the gravity of the budget situation.”

Jonathan Pelto, who was the Democratic Party’s political director when the party last held the governor’s office, has been trying to rally activists with an online commentary and Facebook postings to urge Malloy and Lamont, each of whom enjoys a double-digit lead over the Republican field, to resist the urge to go negative.

“We have a modern…practice of using party primaries to make our nominated candidates unelectable in the general election,” Pelto said.

The 2006 campaign offers a lesson about how a candidate can use his opponent’s negative ads, or even the perception of them, to his advantage.

Lamont won the Democratic primary in 2006, but Lieberman stayed in the race as an independent.

When the Lieberman campaign learned in the closing days of the campaign that Lamont has bought enough time for a round-the-clock ad blitz, Lieberman held a press conference to dramatically accuse Lamont of preparing to smear him. The press conference was an attempt to frame what was coming as underhanded.

“Ned is going to use his wealth to run an uglier campaign and throw as much manufactured mud at me as he possibly can … every half hour of every television viewing day from here on in,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman made the accusation without having seen Lamont’s last round of ads, most of which were positive.

He then questioned if the personal wealth Lamont was using to pay for the ads came from big oil, tax shelters or investments in companies that ship American jobs overseas. After utterly savaging Lamont, Lieberman promised to fight ”the politics of personally funded, personal, negative, attack campaigning.”

The senator’s media consultant after the primary was SKD Knickerbocker – the same firm that Malloy hired this year.

On June 10, soon after getting $2.5 million in public financing, Malloy gave $1.68 million to Knickerbocker to produce and place his television ads.

Lamont started paying his TV consultant in March. Records show he recently upped his payments to the Campaign Group, his media consultant, to $2.28 million.

In May, Lamont’s own poll of likely Democratic primary voters showed him with a 35-point lead, up from 27 points in March. He has not released his more recent polls.

But a Quinnipiac University poll of likely Democratic voters last week showed Lamont’s lead at 9 points, prompting some analysts to guess the commercials soon may go negative.

“The best single predictor of campaign tone, it turns out, is the closeness of the race,” two Stanford political scientists found in a study of U.S. Senate races in 1992. “The tighter the contest, the meaner the campaign.”

Lamont faces a dilemma. Polling shows him with a much larger lead among all Democrats, meaning he should theoretically do better with a larger turnout.

But some studies have found that negative ads drive down turnout.

“Everyone says they are not going to” go negative, says one consultant who asked to remain anonymous, because he has a Connecticut client. He laughed and added, “But they end up doing it.”

The Connecticut airwaves have been surprisingly civil, given that Democrats and Republicans have gubernatorial primaries on Aug. 10, just three weeks away.

One reason is that, until the recently, the campaigns have been on unequal footing. Malloy could not authorize that big payment for Knickerbocker until a month ago.

In the Republican race, Tom Foley alone had the money to go on television until last week, when Michael C. Fedele qualified for $2.18 million in public financing. In his most recent finance report, Oz Griebel had only $100,000 in available cash, too little for TV.

Foley has a 35-point lead among likely Republican primary voters, but his support is soft, according to Quinnipiac. About three quarters of likely GOP voters say they could change their minds, a temptation for Fedele to try to push voters away from Foley with his commercials.

One adviser with knowledge of Fedele’s strategy says he intends to stay with the biographical ad now running, then mix in an issue ad. A commercial criticizing Foley over his business record is likely.

Foley has touted himself as a would-be governor with business acumen. He made his fortune acquiring companies, notably a major Georgia textile mill, Bibb Company. But Foley lost control of the company after it was forced into a bankruptcy reorganization. It ultimately failed after Foley’s departure.

The Fedele campaign sees Foley’s business record as fair game, the adviser said.

One topic that is likely to stay off limits: Foley’s arrests in 1981 and 1993 after motor vehicle incidents, one involving his ex-wife.

Fedele said the media is doing an adequate job of questioning Foley about the incidents, and polling has shown that most Republicans see the issue as a private matter.

Justin Clark, Foley’s campaign manager, said Foley will continue to focus his ads on his own background and the issues.

“Let’s debate the issues,” Clark said. “I can’t tell you what kind of advertising they are going to run.”

He invoked the “11th Commandment,” hoping that Fedele will obey Ronald Reagan’s admonition against Republicans attacking other Republicans.

The 11th has one thing in common with the 10 delivered by Moses. Breaking them is human nature.

The trick is to do it without paying a price.

“You do it the right way, you score and there’s no blowback,” said one consultant. “That’s always the goal. It’s hard.”