Millions pour into local House races for negative ads
At a pizza parlor in Kingston, a stark black-and-white image of Rep. Pat Ryan, the former Ulster County executive who is running for the U.S. House district that will include Beacon, appears on a bar TV screen. Ryan, the narrator says against a background of ominous music, wants to disarm the police and free violent criminals from prison. The video cuts to an image of an inmate behind bars, then back to Ryan’s face. “Pat Ryan is dangerously liberal,” the narrator warns.
Another ad, this one online, features an image of Republican House candidate Colin Schmitt, broadly grinning. “Anti-choice and doesn’t stand up for kids,” asserts the video’s narrator over a background drumbeat. The ad cuts to an image of a woman looking up from a voting booth. She peers into the camera, an expression of disgust across her face. “New Yorkers are on to Colin Schmitt,” the narrator declares.
National political groups, including the Democratic National Congressional Committee (DCCC) and the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), which supports Republicans, are behind most of these negative TV and digital advertisements, as they seek to influence the races for New York’s newly redrawn 17th and 18th congressional districts.
In the 18th, Ryan faces a challenge from Schmitt, a state Assembly member who lives in New Windsor, and in the 17th, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat who lives in Philipstown, is defending his seat against Republican Mike Lawler, a state Assembly member who lives in Pearl River. (Maloney currently represents District 18, which includes Beacon and Philipstown, while Ryan was elected in August to fill the District 19 seat until the end of the year after it was vacated by Antonio Delgado when he became lieutenant governor.)
Outside funding for negative ads happens all over the country. According to the nonpartisan OpenSecrets.org, super political action committees (known as super PACs) have spent $814 million during this election cycle. In the 2020 presidential election, super PAC money accounted for two-thirds of outside spending, according to its analysis.
The amount of outside money devoted to a race generally reflects its importance to the national parties; the balance of power in the House, where Democrats have an eight-seat advantage, could easily shift based on the outcomes of the most competitive races.
As of this week, the elections forecaster FiveThirtyEight describes the race for District 18 between Ryan and Schmitt as “leaning Democrat” while District 17 between Maloney and Lawler is “likely Democrat.” The site lists the Ryan-Schmitt race, as well as a campaign for the new District 19 between Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a Republican, and Josh Riley, a Democrat, among the 50 most competitive House races in the country.
That is reflected by independent expenditure reports compiled by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, spent $1.2 million in September on digital ads, text messages and flyers blasting Ryan and $961,000 going after Maloney. At the same time, the DCCC, a wing of the Democratic Party that seeks to elect Democrats to the House and is chaired by Maloney, spent nearly $1.7 million in September on ads attacking Schmitt but has spent nothing to oppose Lawler. (Maloney has spent his own campaign money to create ads, such as this one.)
Notably, the negative ads purchased with outside money stand an arm’s length from the candidates. When a candidate buys an ad, he or she must explicitly endorse the message on camera. Ads run by political committees and PACs are not endorsed or paid for by the candidates. For example, the New York Republican State Committee has distributed flyers featuring Lawler that accuse Maloney of being “too extreme” for the Hudson Valley because of his progressive positions on abortion and bail reform.
While candidates and campaign strategists apparently believe negative ads are effective, political scientists aren’t so sure. “The effect of negative advertising on voter mobilization is a highly studied thing in political science, but it’s also something we don’t have good answers on,” said Scott Minkoff, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz.
The prevailing wisdom, he said, is that negative advertisements suppress voter turnout but do not boost support for the candidate on whose behalf they are created.
“These groups don’t spend money that they know will be wasted,” said Richard Born, a professor of political science at Vassar College and an expert on congressional politics. “Sadly, negative advertising catches voters’ eyes. It causes them to pay more attention.”
The new ads
The new Congressional Leadership Fund ad, the one in which the narrator labels Ryan a “dangerous liberal,” echoes a familiar Republican attack: Democrats are soft on crime and want to defund the police. In the 30-second TV spot paid for by the group, Ryan can be seen marching with Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Poughkeepsie during the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. (Molinaro also attended.)
The CFL has also created a website, which the super PAC is paying to promote on Google, that encourages visitors to share the ad on social media.
Minkoff observed that the ad is likely designed to boost turnout among rank-and-file Republicans, not to persuade independent voters. “If you thought Ryan was anti-police or going to take your gun away, you probably weren’t going to vote for him anyway,” he said.
On Twitter, Ryan maintained that negative attacks won’t persuade voters. “My opponent has Kevin McCarthy and his dark-money super PAC spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to attack me, and it won’t work in November,” he wrote. Ryan has pledged not to accept campaign contributions from corporate PACs.
Schmitt’s campaign did not pay for the ad, but his campaign representative, Taylor Weyeneth, defended its message. “Pat Ryan is dramatically out of step with Hudson Valley families when it comes to public safety,” he said.
Meanwhile, the DCCC is running a 30-second TV and digital ad on YouTube highlighting Schmitt’s stance on abortion, a point Ryan is also hammering on the campaign trail.
“If he [Schmitt] gets to Congress, he and his extremist allies could ban abortion nationwide,” declares the video’s female narrator. Like the CLF ad, this one uses dramatic music to give urgency to its message. The narration plays over an image of Schmitt speaking at a podium, as the faces of distraught women appear above him on a red background.
Looking Behind Negative Ads
By Leonard Sparks
We selected negative ads about each candidate and researched their claims. It is not exhaustive but illustrates that any campaign material should be read with a critical eye.
Maloney (D) on Lawler (R)
Claim: “He [Mike Lawler] voted against protecting safe and legal abortions in New York.” Caveats: In June, two weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a package of bills to protect abortion rights in New York. Lawler, who is a member of the state Assembly, voted against the bills, including those that would protect medical professionals from misconduct charges for providing abortions and protect them from criminal and civil cases if they treat patients from states where abortion is illegal. Lawler’s anti-abortion position is well-established, but his campaign accuses the Maloney campaign of running an ad that “claims that Mike’s against the national ban on abortion when we’re on the record in over a dozen other news outlets saying we’re not.” This ad doesn’t make that charge, although another calls Lawler “extreme on abortion” and implies that he would join with Republicans who support a national ban.
Lawler (R) on Maloney (D)
Claim: “They’ve [Sean Patrick Maloney and President Joe Biden] given us record inflation and surging crime.” Caveats: The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly inflation update released July 18 showed that prices rose 9.1 percent between June 2021 and June 2022, which was the highest 12-month increase since November 1981. However, there were several periods when the highest 12-month rate was much higher: June 2019 to June 2020 (23.7 percent); March 1946 to March 1947 (20.1 percent); and March 1979 to March 1980 (14.8 percent). Lawler’s campaign stood by its claim: “If we’re nitpicking ‘record’ to say in the past 100 years, that’s one thing,” a representative said. “But realistically, most folks, I think, would agree that inflation has not been higher in a long time in their lifetimes, and it is near record highs.”
Schmitt (R) on Ryan (D)
Claim: Pat Ryan is “endorsed by a group pushing to end cash bail, turning criminal defendants loose.” Caveats: The ad, created by the Congressional Leadership Fund, refers to the Working Families Party, which supported reform laws that eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. A Current analysis found that about 20 percent of defendants released since the law went into effect were charged with other crimes before their prosecutions were complete, but that only a small number involved violent felonies. There was a slight increase statewide in serious crimes in 2020, followed by a slight decrease last year.
Ryan (D) on Schmitt (R)
Claim: “[Colin] Schmitt fought to make health care more expensive for 8 million New Yorkers and opposed lowering prescription drug prices.” Caveats: The claim is among several in an ad accusing Schmitt of voting against health care legislation. This particular claim references Schmitt’s vote in the state Assembly in 2019 against expansive legislation that implemented the annual health and mental hygiene budget. It is a big budget, covering programs like Medicaid, home health aides, lead-poisoning prevention and contraception. Ryan’s campaign may have been referring to provisions to create New York State of Health, the state’s health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act. They appeared to get the number 8 million from a Center for American Progress analysis of how many people in each state would be affected if the ACA were eliminated or scaled back. The statement implies that Schmitt voted against a specific expansion of health care, when he may have voted against the legislation for other reasons.
How it works
Under the Federal Election Campaign Act, super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from individual donors. Unlike citizens or companies, they cannot make direct contributions to political campaigns. Instead, they spend money on behalf of campaigns and candidates, such as on ads.
All super PAC donations must be made public, in contrast to so-called “dark money” or “issue welfare groups,” which are usually nonprofit 501(c)(4) organizations and can accept unlimited contributions from any source; these groups are not required to disclose their donations publicly.
As a result of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which rolled back campaign finance regulations, dark money groups can raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, trade unions and individuals and spend it on ads and direct mailers, as well as phone banking and canvassing operations on behalf of candidates. Like super PACs, these groups cannot coordinate any of their spending with the campaigns themselves.
Examples of dark-money groups include the National Rifle Association and Planned Parenthood, as well as think tanks like the Heritage Foundation or the Center for American Progress. Campaign committees like the DCCC and the Republican National Committee can raise a maximum of $36,500 per year from each individual donor.
The FEC also prohibits candidates from communicating with PACs that support them. But elections experts note that the laws intended to prevent candidates from coordinating with outside groups can lead to more negative political ads.
“Super PACs often run very negative or misleading ads,” said Minkoff. “They do the dirty work because the candidate on whose behalf the money is being spent can claim they had nothing to do with it.”
Even if campaigns cannot write the ads PACs run on their behalf, Minkoff noted, candidates can skirt the rules by simply releasing their campaign strategy to the public in the hopes that PACs will run ads based on those messages.
On rare occasions, negative advertising can backfire. In 2016, the CLF ran ads attacking Delgado during his 19th District race against John Faso. The ads targeted Delgado’s career as a rapper in Los Angeles during his 20s, labeling the Black candidate, who was also a lawyer and Rhodes scholar, a “big city rapper.”
Many local TV stations pulled the ads from their airwaves, and Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told reporters that the ad appeared to galvanize Democrats to vote for Delgado, rather than energize Republican voters to line up against him and in support of Faso.
Faso was forced to distance himself from the videos in a debate against Delgado. “Those are not my ads,” Faso told the audience.
This story was adapted from an article by Feldman that appeared in the Red Hook Daily Catch (thedailycatch.org), with additional reporting on the District 17 race by Leonard Sparks.