Kuhl's MoveOn Dilemma

A story posted yesterday by Rochester NBC affiliate WHEC is a good illustration of the dilemma that the Kuhl campaign faces in responding to the MoveOn ad campaign. On one hand, the Kuhl campaign would like those ads portrayed as a liberal smear by outsiders. On the other, they take the risk of drawing attention to the ads and increasing their impact.

In this case, I think the Kuhl campaign got hung on the second horn of the dilemma -- their complaining hurt their case more than it helped.

The WHEC story is about the second MoveOn ad, which is more accurate and more damaging than the first. During the story, all of the main MoveOn claims are restated: we hear that Kuhl accepted money from defense contractors and opposed penalties for them, and we also see the attempt to tie Kuhl to Cheney and Delay.

These claims are stronger than the first ad. Though the leap to Cheney is questionable, it is clear that Kuhl took some money from defense PACs, took money from Delay's PAC, and voted against a number of amendments that would have mandated closer scrutiny of defense contractors. (MoveOn's factual summary[pdf] is pretty accurate on all but the Cheney link.)

James Kuhl, Randy's son and campaign manager (who, as rochesterturning points out, turns in yet another ham-fisted performance) fires back with a single defense, which is Webster's definition of red-handed. He also makes the weak claim that voters in the district "are smart enough to know what's going on".

As I posted earlier, I agree that "red handed" was overly harsh in the first MoveOn ad, which mainly concerned Randy's votes for spending in Iraq. But James' response doesn't address the contributions. Reasonable people might at least wonder if there's something wrong with a congressman taking money from defense contractors and then not trying harder to reign in waste.

But here's where James is stuck. To defend against specific charges gives them more credence. So he sticks with the "red handed" defense and leaves the rest of the ad to stand unanswered.

In this case, MoveOn got what they wanted. Not only did they air their attack ads, but they also got some priceless prime-time news coverage which repeated the content of those ads.

WHAM Denies Pulling Ad

Rochester's ABC affiliate denies they pulled a MoveOn ad, as the Kuhl campaign claimed in an earlier press release.  The GM of the station says the ads finished their scheduled run.  He also denies the Kuhl campaign's claim that WHAM concluded that the ad "contained multiple misrepresentations and was purposefully deceptive".

Either the Kuhl campaign over-interpreted the WHAM fact-checking article and the absence of MoveOn ads, or they just lied.  I have a hard time believing that they'd want to purposefully irritate a TV station in the district, so I'll go with simple incompetence as the explanation in this case.

Looking for an Eye-Opener

The weak primary performance of Barbara Cubin, a Republican incumbent in the very red state of Wyoming, has big-time political analysts like Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato standing up to take notice.  Cubin's district is redder than the 29th -- Cook rates it at R+19 (a 19 point Republican bias) versus the 29th's R+5 -- and Cubin has more seniority than Kuhl.  If the race for Dick Cheney's old seat in Congress is competitive, then what about the 29th?

Though the 29th garners some mention when weak incumbents are discussed, it is still generally ranked in the second tier of competitive races.  Sabato's just-released ferocious forty most competitive Congressional races doesn't include it.  The Congressional Quarterly ranks it "Republican Favored", and Cook calls it [pdf] "Lean Republican".

Kuhl's recent activity reflects this conventional wisdom.  Kuhl attacks his opponent exclusively through his spokesman.  He hasn't agreed to substantial debates, nor has he changed his campaigning schedule.  Unlike his colleague Rep John Sweeney (NY-20), he didn't lawyer up to fight the airing of the MoveOn ads.  Overall, Kuhl is behaving like an incumbent with a solid lead.

I think this race is closer than the pundits realize, but that's just a hunch.  Unlike Senate races, which are polled into the ground, House races like the 29th aren't frequently measured.  Kuhl doesn't have a primary challenger this year.  So, barring some poll that I don't know about, the next possibility for an eye-opener is the new money numbers, due out at the end of the month.

Massa on the War

Eric Massa's recent press conference was lost in the hubbub over the MoveOn ads, but it's worth a look, as is his National Security page.  Massa's plan has two major components:  withdrawal in 24 months or sooner, and a tripartite partition.

On withdrawal, Massa believes that even a withdrawal started immediately would take 6-18 months, and he would defer to commanders on the ground as to the best way to redeploy forces in a way that's "well thought out and designed to maximize the potential for stability as quickly as possible." 

The tripartite division is a strategy borrowed from Massa's experience in Bosnia.  He thinks that the first step to peace in Iraq is separating the warring parties.  After that, a "loose federation of semi-autonomous states" should be created, one for each of the three distinct ethnic/religious groups living in the country.

Massa's tripartite strategy seems reasonable.  The Kurds have already effectively established their own semi-autonomous region in the North of Iraq.  The predominately Shi'ite population of the South seems like another logical candidate for regional government.  The question is how we get there from where we are now.  Do US troops enforce the partition as they withdraw?   And how does setting a 24-month deadline fit in with partitioning?

Massa has provided a thoughtful strategy born from his experience in another war-torn country.  We'll see if that strategy becomes part of an intelligent debate over Iraq, or if the 29th is treated to 10 weeks of name calling.  I hope for the former, but fear that the latter is far more likely.

WHAM Calls in the Fact Checkers

Rochester's ABC affiliate has fact-checked the first MoveOn ad.  Their take is that the ad contains a number of distortions. I think they're not far from the truth.

The first WHAM claim concerns the statement "What happened to the $300 billion we sent to Iraq.  Halliburton got $18 billion.  $9 billion is just plain missing."

WHAM calls this "faction" -- all the claims are factually true, but it gives the false impression that the $9 billion came from Halliburton.  I think WHAM has a point, but the way the ad is read makes it clear (to me at least) that the 18 and the 9 are separate parts of the 300.

More importantly, WHAM thinks the claim that Kuhl was caught "red-handed" voting for everything is wrong on three counts.  First, they point out that the last Halliburton contract was authorized before Kuhl was a member of Congress.  Second, they argue that no member votes for individual contracts.  Finally, they think the phrase "caught red-handed" implies wrongdoing.

Again, this is a matter of nuance.  Though the Halliburton contracts were authorized before Kuhl took office, he voted on continuing appropriations for the war, and voted against stricter contract enforcement.  Halliburton is a big part of those continuing appropriations.

It's also true that no member votes for individual contracts, and that cherry-picking tiny pieces of gigantic omnibus appropriations is a tried-and-true method of distorting records.  But picking Halliburton as the example of spending in the bill certainly isn't the worst example of cherry picking I've seen.  Kuhl is on record strongly supporting the Bush administration's position on Iraq, and that administration picked Halliburton as a key contractor.

I have to agree completely with the WHAM criticism of the "red-handed" portion of the ad.  Kuhl hasn't tried to hide his support of the war, and the notion that he's been caught out voting for appropriation bills doesn't hold water.

When I watched the first MoveOn ad, my general reaction was: "So what?  Kuhl votes for Iraq appropriations.  So do a number of Democrats.  End of story. "  The issue is that Kuhl's position on Iraq is completely dictated by the Bush administration rather than by his and his constituents' own independent take on the war.

Unfortunately, the practical constraints of a 30-second TV ad dictate much of the MoveOn strategy.  They must capture attention and implant an image.  A truck dumping money in the desert captures attention.  Randy Kuhl with red hands implants the image.

This is the state of politics on television, and we are all the worse for it.

New MoveOn Ad Posted

MoveOn has posted the second anti-Kuhl ad it plans to show in the 29th. Titled "Red-Handed Defense", it alleges that Kuhl accepted money from defense contractor PACs and opposed penalties for contractors "at a time when soldiers didn't have enough body armor".  It ends with the tagline "Tom Delay, Dick Cheney and now Randy Kuhl, another Republican caught red-handed".

More MoveOn Fallout

The Gannett News Service reports today that Kuhl will ask the Elmira and Rochester TV stations to pull the MoveOn ads because of "factual errors".  The same story calculates the total spend for the ads as $100,000, not $76,000 as was initially reported by the AP.

Though the Elmira Star-Gazette featured the story on their website, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, another Gannett paper, cut the story to three graphs,  buried it on page 5B of the print edition, and did not carry it on their site.

More Bad Iraq PR for Kuhl

In a wire story triggered by the MoveOn ads, Kuhl's over-rosy assessment of his Iraq trip came back to haunt him. Responding to Massa's criticism that Kuhl went to Iraq and returned without any solutions, campaign spokesman Bob Van Wicklin makes the following claim:

"The only person using Iraq as a political issue is this Massa guy," said Van Wicklin. "The fact is that according to Iraq's National Security Advisor, attacks in Iraq are down 45 percent since mid-July."

Because Kuhl came back from Iraq with an unrealistically optimistic take, his staff is now bound to keep pushing a positive line on Iraq.  This is at best risky, probably foolishly so, because it continues to expose Kuhl to the charge of naiveté.

Van Wicklin probably got the 45% figure from an interview in which Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, the Iraqi National Security Advisor, claimed that the influx of troops in mid-July caused the overall rate of attacks to fall by 45%, and "extra-judicial murders" to fall by 35%.  If al-Rubaie is right, and the trend holds, that's wonderful news.

However, it's simply a fact that July was the bloodiest month on record in Iraq, and that the overall trend in killings for the year has been sharply upward.  Disputing that fact with a few cherry-picked quotes that fly in the face of everything else reported in the newspaper is not a winning strategy politically, and it confirms Massa's charge that Kuhl has no solutions.

MoveOn Dumps on Kuhl

Randy Kuhl will be one of three incumbent Republican congressmen targeted by MoveOn.org's newest ad campaign.  The ad shows a truck dumping money in the desert while the narrator asks what happened to the $300 billion spent in Iraq, and points out that Kuhl has voted for all of the Iraq spending bills.  It ends by portraying Kuhl in grainy black-and-white with an airbrushed "red hand".

MoveOn's media buy in the 29th is 700 gross points, which, according to this reference, means that the average television viewer in the district will see the ad seven times.  A similar ad will also be aired in New Hampshire's 2nd and New York's 20th districts, which, like the 29th, are also rated "lean Republican" by the Cook Political Report.

MoveOn ran another similar ad in four other districts in June.  One of those districts, Indiana's 2nd, was moved from "lean Republican" to "toss up" by Cook in his latest report.

Update:  According to the AP, MoveOn is spending $76,000 on those ads in the 29th.  That's equal to almost half of the cash Massa had on hand at the end of June. 

Turnout Nuts and Bolts

The Kuhl site has an extensive FAQ section, all of which concerns the details of voting in New York State.

It's impossible to overestimate the importance of this kind of information, especially when it comes to registration and absentee ballots.  In my experience with political campaigns, a surprising number of voters are unable to navigate the bureaucracy of voting and therefore don't vote.  This is especially true for senior citizens, who are often unable to travel to the polls, yet don't know the  mechanics of the absentee process.

In New York State, all voters must register at least 25 days before the election, and absentee ballots must be requested no earlier than 30 days, and no later than 7 days, before the election.  This means that the election really starts in October.

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