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Senate race will be caked in mud

By STEVE WILSON Executive Editor  

With the primary just past and more than five months till the November election, I thought we might get a break from negative campaign ads.

How naive. Less than 24 hours after the votes were counted, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a super PAC, aired a TV spot on behalf of Mitch McConnell that portrays Alison Lundergan Grimes as a close pal of Hollywood liberals. The group is spending $575,000 to air the ad across the commonwealth through June 2.

Not to be outdone, the Grimes campaign Wednesday released a two-minute web video it called "Where's Mitch?" It quotes various citizens saying McConnell has become a creature of Washington and is rarely seen in Kentucky.

As attack ads go, these are pretty tame. But it won't be long before the tone and the language of the ads heat up in what is expected to be the nation's most hotly contested Senate race.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne put it this way: "Anyone with a weak stomach and refined sensibilities should stay out of Kentucky for the next six months."

The Grimes video is reminiscent of a more memorable one 30 years ago that may have put McConnell in the Senate. The spot helped him overcome a big deficit in the polls and defeat Sen. Walter "Dee" Huddleston in 1984. The "Where's Dee?" ad featured a man with a pack of bloodhounds searching everywhere for the Democratic senator.

"My job was to find Dee Huddleston and get him back to work," the ad began, with the dogs given Huddleston's scent from a T-shirt. He was "missing big votes on Social Security, the budget, defense, even agriculture," skipping them "for an extra $50,000 making speeches."

With the dogs exhausted, the ad concluded, "We can't find Dee. Maybe we ought to let him make speeches and switch to Mitch for senator."

McConnell won that election by less than one-half of one percent.

Two years ago, Advertising Age gathered a panel of campaign experts who picked the "Top 10 Game-Changing Political Ads of All Time." The McConnell spot was ranked No. 7. They noted that it was one of the first to use satire to take down an opponent.

No. 1 on the list was what came to be known as the "Daisy" ad, produced in 1964 for Lyndon Johnson's campaign against Barry Goldwater. It opened with a young girl in a field pulling petals off a daisy, then showed a nuclear mushroom cloud, feeding fears of Goldwater's volatile personality and a nuclear war.

Not all of the top 10 were negative. The No. 2 ad was "Morning in America" which aired in 1984 on behalf of Ronald Reagan. A 2008 spot called "Yes, We Can" gave Barack Obama a lift after his New Hampshire primary loss to Hillary Clinton and was ranked No. 4.

The current trend of political advertising, however, is relentlessly negative, and the reason is not complicated. Despite polls consistently showing that Americans dislike negative ads, they work.

Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, believes voters who reject negative ads consciously often are affected by them unconsciously.

"Our conscious reactions reflect our conscious values," he wrote. "In the case of campaigns, for most people, those values include a belief that people should run on their merits and stop tearing each other down. But unconsciously, our brains are highly reactive to threat - especially when, in the case of an ad, the threat isn't immediately countered or refuted."

That's why most major candidates these days are quick to respond to attacks, often with smacks of their own.

We would see even more low blows were it not for the risk of harshly negative ads backfiring, as Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway learned in 2010.

His ad made overblown accusations about opponent Rand Paul's activities during his college years at Baylor University, alleging he worshipped a false god named "Aqua Buddha."

The ad created a large backlash, pushed Conway's "unfavorable" rating over 50 percent and helped seal the election for Paul.

As the mud balls multiply in the weeks ahead, it's worth remembering that campaigns were even dirtier in the distant past.

In the 1800 presidential race, John Adams' campaign called Thomas Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." In his presidential run against John Quincy Adams in 1828, Andrew Jackson was accused of cannibalism and his wife was called a prostitute.

Voters back in those days, however, had a good defense against the wearisome onslaught of personal attacks. Television was more than a century away.

Steve Wilson is executive editor of The Paducah Sun. You can reach him at

swilson@paducahsun.com.

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