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On The Ropes, Republicans Attack

Negative campaign ads and tactics permeate House races across upstate New York. Here’s a look at three races where biting attacks are the norm.

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Claudia Tenney is trying to tie her opponent to Nancy Pelosi and left-wing immigration proposals. - CLAUDIA TENNEY FOR CONGRESS
  • Claudia Tenney for Congress
  • Claudia Tenney is trying to tie her opponent to Nancy Pelosi and left-wing immigration proposals.

Negative campaigning is the tobacco of democracy: Shamefully prevalent, effective at eliciting its desired effect, and detrimental to our well-being as a nation. One study shows that despite voters’ oft-professed repugnance, going negative can be highly effective at shoring up both two-party vote share and voter turnout (as long as it comes from a campaign and not a PAC).

It’s no surprise, then, that it is the most common form of campaign advertising, a commonality that increases with each successive cycle. Upstate New York is no exception to that phenomenon. In fact, contests in competitive districts being waged from the Hudson Valley to Utica have been ground zero for some of the most mean-spirited campaign ads and tactics this election cycle. Several Republican incumbents determined to keep their seats, and some Democratic challengers running against their records, have embraced negativity to achieve their goals.

NY19: A Tale of Two Carpetbaggers

New York’s 19th district encompasses the upper Hudson Valley, the Catskills and parts of Central New York and the Capital Region. - US GEOLOGICAL SURVEY
  • US Geological Survey
  • New York’s 19th district encompasses the upper Hudson Valley, the Catskills and parts of Central New York and the Capital Region.

Shortly after Antonio Delgado captured the Democratic nomination in New York’s 19th congressional district–which covers much of the Hudson Valley, the Catskills, and the Albany suburbs–incumbent John Faso’s campaign sent out an ostensibly congratulatory press release that didn’t take a breath before morphing into an efficient and ruthless onslaught.

“I congratulate Mr. Delgado on his victory in the Democratic Primary Election,” it began, “this November, Mr. Delgado will cast his first ever general election vote for Congress in our district after just moving here from New Jersey.” It went on to state that “our neighbors do not look kindly upon candidates who have just moved into our district and presume to represent us” and gave a laundry list of Mr. Delgado’s policy positions, casting all in a negative light.

John Faso is going on the offensive to counter attacks on his record. - JOHN FASO FOR CONGRESS
  • John Faso for Congress
  • John Faso is going on the offensive to counter attacks on his record.

However, Delgado himself is no conscientious objector when it comes to the bloodsport of negative campaigning. He has blasted Faso’s record, calling him a liar and an advocate for the richest and most powerful Americans. At times, Delgado and his supporters call Faso his a “no show,” a reference to Faso’s aversion to holding town hall meetings.

Delgado has also launched his own carpetbagger attacks, pointing to the fact that Faso himself moved to Kinderhook shortly before mounting an Assembly campaign in 1986. He’s originally from Long Island. Members of grassroots progressive groups like Indivisible and Citizen Action–aligned with Delgado–have been relentless in their attacks, setting up weekly “Faso Friday” protests outside Faso’s Kingston office where attendees often carry signs saying things like “Faso, sold to the billionaire Mercer family” and “Death panel Faso”.

While none of these attacks are particularly out of the ordinary for a congressional race, they are evidence of this being an especially brutal campaign.

The one truly controversial instance of negative campaigning came in response to the allegedly offensive rap lyrics of “AD the Voice,” a social-justice oriented hip hop persona that Delgado adopted while living in Los Angeles over a decade ago. Following a New York Post article—which noted that in his music, Delgado “frequently hurls the N-word, slaps the two-party political system, rips the “dead” presidents as “white supremacists,” blasts capitalism, likens blacks to modern day slaves, calls poverty the ‘purest form of terrorism’ and boasts of ‘having sex to a porno flick’”—Faso and his allies went on the attack.

Antonio Delgado has attacked Faso's record as one of absenteeism and broken promises. - ANTONIO DELGADO FOR CONGRESS
  • Antonio Delgado for Congress
  • Antonio Delgado has attacked Faso's record as one of absenteeism and broken promises.

Faso blasted the lyrics as “troubling and offensive,” and argued “the tone and tenor of his lyrics are not consistent with the views of most people in our district, nor do they represent a true reflection of our nation," but one of his allies, SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin, was less equivocal. He explained to the Daily Gazette that Faso’s argument against the lyrics was “a cultural argument. It’s saying that this guy [Delgado] is not like us," and told the New York Times “Is a guy who makes a rap album the kind of guy who reflects our lifestyle and values? People like us, people in rural New York, we are not people who respond to this part of American culture.”

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a House Republican super PAC that has donated millions to Faso’s campaign, put out a scathing radio ad (apparently not getting the memo that negative ads from PACs are generally ineffective at shoring up votes) which referred to Delgado almost exclusively as “AD the Voice” and said “the extreme views he represents would probably fit better in New York City or San Francisco, not NY-19.”

“It’s disappointing that John Faso and others have decided to focus on distractions by spreading fear, hatred and division,” Delgado said in response to these attacks. Many, including the New York Times editorial board, accused Faso of “race-baiting,” arguing that his attacks and those of Benjamin were attempts to alienate NY19’s overwhelmingly white, rural electorate from a black candidate by invoking cultural divisions.

One faith leader in the district alleged that the attacks were “code for saying to voters who don’t come from diverse communities that someone who’s of color could not represent them.” Faso defended himself in a letter to the Times before finally dropping the attack altogether. While many voters have reflected indifference toward the lyrics themselves, it seems that Faso’s attacks may have backfired, electorally speaking. Only time–and polls–will say for sure.

NY21: North Country for Old Men

New York’s 21st District is in North Country and includes most of the Adirondack mountain range. - US GEOLOGICAL SURVEY
  • US Geological Survey
  • New York’s 21st District is in North Country and includes most of the Adirondack mountain range.

The largest of New York’s congressional districts, the 21st picks up where the 19th left off up north, covering everything from Saratoga Springs up to the Canadian border and encompassing most of the Adirondacks. It’s there, in New York’s northernmost pocket of land, that the youngest female member of Congress was elected in the 2014 Republican wave. She was 30, and campaigned on “fresh ideas.” Elise Stefanik, a Harvard grad and staffer for the Bush administration, has since become a key player among House Republicans.

In addition to being elected as freshman representative to the policy committee, Stefanik has served as the chair of the “Tuesday Group,” a caucus of moderate Republicans, and head of recruitment for the National Republican Campaign Committee. It’s been a meteoric rise, accompanied by a sterling reputation as a fresh new face and source of youthful energy for Congressional Republicans, as well as a landslide reelection in 2016. But this year is different.

This year, Stefanik faces a real threat to her incumbency in Tedra Cobb. Cobb is a county legislator from Saint Lawrence County, one of the more populous and liberal counties in the district. She got that job, perhaps ominously for Stefanik, by “beating a powerful incumbent,” according to her website.

Despite being the safest of the three incumbents, Elise Stefanik still has a real race on her hands. - ELISE STEFANIK FOR CONGRESS
  • Elise Stefanik for Congress
  • Despite being the safest of the three incumbents, Elise Stefanik still has a real race on her hands.

Cobb further demonstrated her electoral potency when, in the Democratic primary in June, she dispatched her five opponents with ease, winning an impressive 56% of the vote. For contrast, Delgado, who faced a similarly large 7-way primary, won with just 22% of the vote, 3% more than his closest opponent. Cobb’s margin made all the more impressive by the fact that she faced a very high profile opponent in former MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan. Cobb, it seems, will prove troublesome for Stefanik’s reelection prospects in what is shaping up to be a Democratic wave year.

Following Cobb’s primary victory, Stefanik’s campaign, in Faso-esque form, released a statement giving Cobb a pat on the back and a punch in the gut. “Tonight we congratulate Tedra Cobb on winning the Democratic primary and welcome her to the general election,” it began,”our opponent emerges from a weak, divisive Democratic primary as the out of touch, liberal, hyper-partisan, tax-and-spend candidate of the general election.” Soon after, Stefanik’s campaign put out not only an ad, but a website labelling Cobb “Taxin’ Tedra,” to highlight her “tax-and-spend, liberal voting record” as a county legislator.

Then came the assault rifle comment.

Tedra Cobb proved her grit by defeating a large primary field by a wide margin in June. - TEDRA COBB FOR CONGRESS
  • Tedra Cobb for Congress
  • Tedra Cobb proved her grit by defeating a large primary field by a wide margin in June.

In July, Cobb was caught on a secretly recorded video saying she thought assault rifles “should be banned,” but that she “cannot say that in public” because it would cost her the election. Stefanik’s campaign quickly jumped on the comment, with her spokesman tweeting, “⁦@TedraCobb⁩ now officially the worst Democratic House candidate of the cycle. Admitted raising taxes, now caught on camera violating her pledge to be honest with #NY21 voters,” referring to a pledge Cobb made not to lie during the campaign. Later, the Stefanik campaign put out an ad attacking the comment and somewhat misleadingly alleging that Cobb “supported banning guns.”

Despite the blow to Cobb for this comment, the development may have ended up serving as something of a scandal for Stefanik as well. Earlier this month, it was revealed that the person filming Cobb’s controversial comments was, in fact, a Stefanik campaign intern. It was also revealed that he had used a fake name and lied about his phone being dead in order to record the speech.

While trackers–young folks who follow opposing campaigns relentlessly to hopefully capture a gaffe on tape–are a staple of political campaigns, they are usually employed by parties or PACs, not campaigns themselves. Trackers are also usually direct and transparent about their presence, and don’t normally lie to gain entry to events. This tactic gave off an air of underhandedness that may rub North Country voters the wrong way.

NY22: An Un-Tenneyble Situation

New York’s 22nd district covers much of Central New York, including Binghamton and Utica - US GEOLOGICAL SURVEY
  • US Geological Survey
  • New York’s 22nd district covers much of Central New York, including Binghamton and Utica

Claudia Tenney is a scrapper. As a state Assemblywoman in 2014, she mounted a bold primary challenge against incumbent Republican Richard Hanna, a moderate Republican who went so far as to endorse Hillary Clinton for President in 2016. Tenney ran to Hanna’s right as a Tea Party insurgent and came within striking distance, losing 46.5 percent to 53.5 percent. In 2016, when Hanna opted to retire from Congress, Tenney narrowly defeated Democrat Kim Myers and Independent Martin Babinec to ascend to Hanna’s seat. She has since racked up a solidly conservative record.

The district, which covers much of Central New York including Binghamton and Utica, is somewhat more Republican-leaning than NY21 or NY19. But despite that conservative lean, Tenney seems to be the most vulnerable of the three incumbents; a Zogby poll showed her trailing Democratic State Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi by 7 points. Much of this is due to the wide perception of her as a hardline, Trump-aligned conservative and a rhetorical bomb-thrower. By contrast, Brindisi is an on-message, centrist Democrat, perfect for such a conservative-leaning district.

Tenney has made national headlines several times for her often outrageous remarks. The most notable of these came in February when, while discussing gun control on a conservative talk radio show, Tenney said, “it's interesting that so many of these people that commit the mass murders end up being Democrats.” She refused to backtrack on this statement despite the ensuing controversy.

Claudia Tenney has a history of making controversial statements. - WNBF
  • WNBF
  • Claudia Tenney has a history of making controversial statements.

She’s also had a notably combative relationship with the press. She often takes to her social media accounts for a series dubbed “Fact Check Friday,” wherein she criticizes local news outlets for not properly reporting on the work she is doing. She said of one local paper, Utica’s Observer Dispatch, “They have been instrumental in causing a lot of the decline in our community by not telling the truth to a lot of our residents here.” She has also gone so far as to call the media, “the single biggest destructive force in our country.”

For his part, Brindisi initially took a firm stance against negative campaigning, stating, “I think that we are going to have policy disagreements. But I would hope that [Tenney] keeps the political sniping to a minimum.” But, according to the Utica College Center of Public Affairs, “17 out of 42 Tweets (40 percent) from ‘Anthony Brindisi for Congress’ (@ABrindisiNY) [in March] were personal attacks on Tenney.”

One tweet suggested that Wall Street companies donate to Tenney “because they know with her representing them the system will continue to be rigged in their favor.” Another tweet read, “Who’s right up there with the data thieves & internet privacy voyeurs? Well, @RepTenney who after thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from special interests, voted to give away our privacy.” Whether these and other tweets of the like rise to the level of personal attack is in the eye of the beholder.

Anthony Brindisi, a centrist Democrat with a solid record, is giving Tenney a run for her money. - ANTHONY BRINDISI FOR CONGRESS
  • Anthony Brindisi for Congress
  • Anthony Brindisi, a centrist Democrat with a solid record, is giving Tenney a run for her money.

But Tenney’s campaign has also put out a fiery ad that excoriates Brindisi by tying him to Nancy Pelosi–a common boogeywoman for GOP attack ads–in his stance on immigration. The ad (featured in the main graphic) states that Brindisi wants to have open borders and abolish ice over shots of immigrants and refugees climbing the Mexican border fence and photos of the notorious MS-13 gang.

But Brindisi has said he would not vote for Pelosi for Democratic leader, and, according to WRVO, “Brindisi breaks from some prominent members of his party by not opposing the construction of a border wall along some parts of the Mexico border and not calling for abolishing the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency.”

"These attacks are beyond the pale,” Brindisi said in a statement to Chronogram. He noted that, “She started this campaign with attacks that an editorial board called 'disgusting' and 'highly insulting.'” He also believes “[Tenney]’s ads reflect [a] strategy of campaigning on fear and misinformation rather than the facts of her record." His campaign has also put out a mostly positive ad debunking Tenney’s claims about Brindisi’s positions on immigration and Nancy Pelosi.

Canaries in the coal mine

To be sure, negative campaigning is a hallmark of competitive elections. Wherever there are two candidates locked in a serious and heated battle for power, attacks are sure to follow. But excessive negativity such as we’ve seen from these at-risk GOP incumbents in swing districts may very well be yet another signal of impending misfortunes for them. Most politicians prefer to run positive campaigns, and do so when the stakes are low. But when their backs are against the wall, that’s when they start swinging.

Negative ads simply have more electoral value than positive ones. This was best put by Roger Sterling from the acclaimed series Mad Men, who posited, “when you run an ad that’s positive, you only convince the people who are already voting for you. But when you run an ad that’s critical you get a shot at the people who are on the fence.” Therein lies the rub. Only by making the alternative look unpalatable can a candidate secure undecided voters. In going excessively negative, it seems that these incumbents are making scorched earth efforts to shore up undecideds and protect their seats. If they’re fighting this hard, it only speaks to the strength of the movement working against them.

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