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2nd District mudslinging could trigger a backlash

Critical ads in the 2nd Congressional District are turning the U.S. House race into one of the most negative campaigns in Utah history.
Critical ads in the 2nd Congressional District are turning the U.S. House race into one of the most negative campaigns in Utah history.
Paul Barker, Deseret Morning News

At what point does a candidate actually become harmed by controversial advertising?

Are John Swallow and Jim Matheson being hurt by negative ad campaigns in Utah's 2nd Congressional District?

Utahns have, over the years, been less than receptive to tough, highly critical campaigning, says Dan Jones, who has polled in Utah for 30 years and teaches political science at the University of Utah.

The 2nd District race between Republican Swallow and incumbent Democratic Rep. Matheson is turning into one of the most negative in the state's history. Come Election Day, $4 million may have been spent by both candidates and their political parties, much of it in advertising criticizing the other guy.

It's generally assumed that Democrat Lily Eskelsen — an attractive, articulate candidate — was hurt in her 1998 effort to unseat then-GOP Rep. Merrill Cook when TV ads started running showing Cook with his hair all awry — criticizing him on a variety of fronts. Cook, who had had a checkered election career, coasted to a larger-than-expected victory.

"In my opinion, those ads cost Lily the race," said Jones, who that year was doing tracking polling for Cook. "I watched it daily. Before those ads hit, Lily was gaining" on Cook. "But not only did she stop" closing on Cook when the negative ads hit the airwaves, "she actually dropped," said Jones.

Now the Utah Republican Party, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Swallow's own campaign are mired in anti-Matheson ad blitzes — some of which are clearly backfiring on Republicans.

In an effort to stop the bleeding, state GOP officials say they will not mail out the final two anti-Matheson fliers now sitting in Salt Lake City warehouses. "Together, they are about 46,000 pieces of mail," says GOP executive director Spencer Jenkins, "a rather small mailing considering we've already sent out maybe half a million fliers" in the 2nd District alone.

The flier issue exploded this week when it became known that one flier criticized Matheson for supporting a bill that is actually sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Chris Cannon, both R-Utah. The state party sent out 76,000 of those to Salt Lake County voters.

Matheson's own campaign has been running anti-Swallow TV ads, although he says he only started them after Swallow ran negative ads against him first.

Both Matheson and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have new anti-Swallow ads accusing Swallow of hurting Utah children by voting against a number of "pro-child" bills while he was in the Utah Legislature.

Both sides "are nearing the line" of harming the candidates the ads are meant to help, says Brigham Young University political scientist Kelly Patterson. Patterson and colleagues are once again studying Utah's 2nd Congressional District campaign as part of a large project looking at close U.S. House races across the country.

He says the Swallow and NRCC ads on Matheson's abortion voting record "are clearly at odds with his overall record" on abortion votes — in other words, they are painting a distorted picture.

And the DCCC and Matheson ads against Swallow show "him as a protector of child molesters" — which also is clearly not the case, Patterson said.

"At some point, people say, 'Wow, this is too aggressive' and not in the Utah style," Patterson said.

Swallow sent out a press release Tuesday complaining about a new Matheson ad that shows a nuclear bomb exploding behind Swallow's head, implying that somehow Swallow wants open-air bomb testing again.

Matheson has been complaining that Swallow is supporting a President Bush-backed initiative to study what it would take to build a new "bunker-busting" small nuclear bomb. Matheson says that would lead to new nuclear underground testing at the Nevada Test Site. Swallow says he's just joining Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and other national Republicans who say it's OK to study the new weapon but oppose any new underground testing.

The slash-and-burn campaigning is turning the 2nd District race into a mud bath, Jones says.

"I believe these negative ads violate the spirit of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act," said Jones, who is the pollster for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV. "But as one campaign aide said to me this year, 'Dan, we weren't getting anywhere with what we were doing, so we had to try something else.' "

In a mid-September poll for the newspaper and TV station, Jones found Matheson held a 2-to-1 lead over Swallow. "But that has closed," Jones said Wednesday.

Will the negative ads have an impact?

They have in the past in Eastern U.S. House contests, said Jones. "Back East, they work. They work especially in House races where voters really don't know their incumbents' voting records." But as the 1998 Eskelsen race shows, they can fail here, he added.

The NRCC has pumped more than $1.1 million into the 2nd District in TV, direct mail and telephoning, new Federal Election Commission reports show.

"The DCCC is now responding to that" by buying a bunch of TV ads against Swallow, noted Patterson. The DCCC has put more than $640,000 into the race as of Oct. 22, FEC reports show.

"The NRCC and the DCCC see something. They wouldn't have put that money in unless they saw a dynamic — a chance to win, a chance to move some voters," he said.

Non-Utah party PAC ads are historically more negative than the candidates' own advertising, said Patterson. "The candidates have to live here after the election — have to appeal to all constituents if they win office. The candidates want to reflect the values of their community, not push too hard."

And so it is that the state Republican Party is not sending out the final two anti-Matheson fliers, whose content they blame on the NRCC. "I know some (Utah) Republicans are complaining" about the tone of party-produced ads, Jones said.

"We decided to take the high road," says Jenkins.

But, say Patterson and Jones, it may be a road that is already mired in mud.