Posts containing my opinion of the race.

Dynamite or Firecracker?

The Elmira Star-Gazette and Rochester Democrat and Chronicle report on court documents filed by the Massa campaign in an employment dispute with their fired former campaign manager.  One of the accusations against Sanford Dickert, who was dismissed in June, is that he invited teenage boys to his apartment, gave them alcohol and hard liquor, and invited a 16-year-old boy to stay the night.

Massa says that he did not know of any of these things until Dickert was dismissed.  Affadavits filed in the case include a number of accusations of against Dickert, including lying on his resume, soliciting donations contrary to campaign finance laws, and distributing literature that did not represent Massa's true positions.  Dickert was hired in April and fired June 13.

Reader Rich points out Bob Lonsberry's column, in which Bob clarifies by quoting some of the documents filed.  First, the other teenage boys were college-age employees of the Massa campaign, one of whom says that the alcohol was purchased by another 25-year-old campaign worker for her personal use.  So I assume "teenage" in that case means 18 or 19. Lonsberry's reading of the filings says that it was Massa's 16-year-old son whom Dickert asked to spend the night.

Lonsberry tries to spin the differences in the affidavits into perjury on Massa's part, and likens the whole case to the page scandal.

The perjury claim is far-out.  Employment disputes often devolve into he-said/she-saids, and having different perspectives on the performance of a fired employee does not mean that someone's lying.  Also, the affidavit from which Lonsberry quotes is by a student at Cooper Union, where Dickert is an adjunct professor (according to his personal web page).  An employment arbitration proceeding would presumably go further into the details of what relationship, if any, exists between Dickert and the student.

As for the "teenagers" and alcohol,  Lonsberry claims that the Massa campaign has a special duty towards them, because they were "like pages".  I don't think that's true.  If they're all college-age (pages aren't), then they are adults, and can be treated as such.  If the campaign manager procured liquor for them, he should be fired, and he was.  If Massa had called the cops, then  the students would be in trouble for the actions of an irresponsible employee.  This is an area where discretion should be exercised, and it sounds like it was.

The revelation that the 16-year-old was Massa's son puts a whole new spin on the facts of the story.  If Massa's son was the only person at that party under the age of consent, and Massa has heard the whole story of the party from his boy, we have to assume nothing that happened there was worth calling the cops about.  Frankly, if I were Massa's 16-year-old son, I'd be a hell of a lot more scared of Eric Massa than the Corning PD.

The real scandal here would have been Massa paying the guy to go away.  That didn't happen.  But so close to the election, who knows what will develop out of this.

Closing Time

Tight races are decided by the most fickle and least informed voters: last-minute undecideds.  In the 29th, both candidates are using every technique at their disposal to close with voters who haven't been paying attention until now.

Yesterday and today's Democrat and Chronicle has a couple of round-up stories that detail efforts to sway undecideds.  One of the important points made in today's story concerns the marginal value of additional spending.  At some point, additional money spent on advertising doesn't work.  But neither campaign knows if they've reached that point.  So they just keep spending.

The marginal value of advertising is especially questionable in the Northern 29th.  The Rochester media market has three close Congressional races along with the legislative and judicial contests.  Almost every ad during local programming (like the news) is a political advertisement.  Ads for the 29th are probably drowned out in the overall din of political ads.

The Kuhl campaign is trying to fill the space between the ads -- the local news -- by announcing grants in different parts of the district and hoping for media coverage.  Today, Kuhl will announce grants for Ontario and Monroe county projects.  Last week, he announced grants in Elmira and Corning. 

Lacking the incumbent advantage of announcing pork, the Massa campaign has opted for a more personal approach: touring the district and pressing the flesh. Massa began a week-long tour of the eight counties in the 29th yesterday.

Massa's New Ad: Not Smart

Sometimes too smart is not smart, and that's what's going on with Massa's latest ad.

Like most voters, I don't like negative ads, and I don't they're as effective as campaigns believe. That said, as a negative ad, Massa's is pretty tame. It calls Kuhl a liar and paints him in unflattering poses, but it doesn't include a lot of the outrageous imagery (sniper sights, playboy bunnies, etc.) seen in end-of-campaign ads in this and other races.

By the standard of negative ads, it's also not especially stupid. It doesn't expect us to swallow claims that we wouldn't believe about any politician. For example, if voters know anything about Kuhl, they probably know he supported private accounts (or "privatization") for Social Security. And Batiste did say what he's quoted as saying.

The problem with Massa's ad is the flip-side of stupidity: an overly complex message.

Kuhl's most recent negative ads carry a simple message: Eric Massa will raise taxes and gut Social Security.

Massa's response to Kuhl's two-note song is a MTV blitz of images. It starts with the weakest claim, that Kuhl lied about bringing jobs upstate, which was actually more of an exaggeration than a lie. It continues to the issues of social security, taxes, veterans benefits and the war in Iraq (via the Batiste quote). All in 30 seconds.

Because it's hell-bent on getting punch-backs on every single real or perceived slight in the campaign, the ad tries to do too much. Massa would have been better off sticking to two things: hitting Kuhl on Social Security and taxes, and saying he'll be a voice for change. The word "change" -- which is the key message word for Democrats this cycle -- doesn't even appear in the ad.

NRCC's New Ad: Money and Strategy

The charges in the new attack ad are essentially the same as those in Kuhl's earlier Social Security ad, so the same analysis applies.  What's interesting about this ad is who paid for it,  how it fits into Kuhl's overall campaign strategy, and what the Massa campaign will do about it.

The anti-Massa ad campaign was purchased as part of the NRCC's seven million dollar Friday media buy.  The NRCC paid $176K for it.  That's more than any single media buy listed in the last two campaign filings of either candidate.  It's also significantly more than the other large independent media expenditure in the 29th, the buy of $139K.

By comparison, from the last week in August to mid-October, Kuhl had spent a little over $500K on mass media, while Massa's spending total is about half of that, $244K.  (These numbers are roughly right - campaign expenditure reporting is a bit vague.)  The NRCC buy is more than two-thirds of all of Massa's spending for the last two months.  In other words, it's big.

In theory and by law, the NRCC expenditure is out of the control of the Kuhl campaign.  In practice and by common sense, one has to assume that party and candidate agree on a strategy in the last few weeks of an election.   

The NRCC/Kuhl issues strategy is a return to an old Republican standby, taxes, with a segue to Social Security.   By attacking on Social Security, which is proven kryptonite in campaigns, Kuhl hopes to make Massa spend the last few days of the race on the defensive instead of pushing the change message.  The media strategy is to let the NRCC do the real dirty work, since their ad doesn't have to include Kuhl's name or approval.  The use of "gunsights" in the ad, which makes Massa look like he wants to hunt down old people, is not far from a charge that he wants to smother kittens.  It's calculated to inflame the Massa campaign and partisans into a over-the-top response which changes the subject from change (which is a loser for Kuhl).

Some of the Massa campaign's recent rhetoric ("we will not unilaterally disarm") makes me think they might rise to the bait.  My guess is that whatever they produce will not be as visually negative as the NRCC ad.  I think the smart move is to take it down a notch, quickly deflect the Social Security charge, and return the focus to change.  Also, every ad should include a smiling Eric Massa, similar to the one who appeared in the Spitzer/Massa ad.

That's probably considered a "wimpy" strategy by partisans, but I think that a scoff rather than an earnest, defensive response is the right way to respond to over-the-top attacks.

The Female Vote

I agree with the guys at rochesterturning that the Laura Bush visit is all about shoring up base women voters.  I don't agree with Robert Novak's reason why:

Rep. Randy Kuhl (R) in District 29 has seen his support among women evaporate. Kuhl's dirty laundry -- including the old alleged threat against his wife with a shotgun -- had been aired before, but now perhaps it is finding a more receptive audience in this tough Republican election year.

Perhaps the personal issues of the last campaign might have left some residual damage, but there are two issues that have affected every woman I know.  The most recent is the Foley scandal.  Moms are mad at the Republican leadership, who appear to have tolerated a child predator to ensure a safe seat.  More importantly, in the last couple of weeks, death and injury of soldiers in Iraq have been front page news across the district.  The other day, I saw one normally stoic mother shed a tear while reading the story of the latest death.  Even among those who think the war was justified, there's a lot of anger at the perceived incompetence and carelessness of the Republican leadership.  That carelessness has cost a lot of mothers their son or daughter.  Fairly or not, the R after Kuhl's name will cost him votes of women -- especially mothers -- in the district.

Novak's ideological blinders won't allow him to see those factors, so he hones in on what he understands:  personal attacks.

Kuhl's Social Security Ad

In Randy Kuhl's new ad, we see the staple of Social Security propaganda:  the confused and outraged old person.  After the obligatory grainy black-and-white montage,  Granny appears and delivers the line: "Raise taxes?  Cut benefits?  Sounds to me like this fella Massa has his priorities a little messed up."

Well, Granny, someone whose priority list includes "remember stool softener" and "put teeth in glass next to bed" probably shouldn't be throwing stones.  Nevertheless, I'm going to try to reason with you.  Turn up your hearing aid for a moment, and I'll tell you how Randy Kuhl tried to pull a fast one on people like me by using you to change the subject.

Let's start with the one citation in Kuhl's ad:  a 15-month-old story in the Elmira Star-Gazette (which is still in Google's cache).  In that story, Massa talked about a four-point plan:

  1. Raise the income ceiling for the Social Security deduction exemption above $90K.
  2. Delay benefits for people just entering the workforce (and the SS system).
  3. Exempt the first $10,000 of income from Social Security taxes.
  4. Stop raiding the SS trust fund for general revenue.

This plan is a bit different from the one Massa mentioned in the debate, and I'll get to that in a moment.  But first, does this mean he'll raise taxes?  The median family income in the 29th was about $50K last census.  Almost 5% of families had an income less than $10K.  This means that the vast majority of the 29th won't pay more tax, and the poorest would actually pay less.

Will he cut benefits?  Not for Granny, or anyone else retiring in the next 40 years.  This plan raises the retirement age , which hasn't happened since the beginning of the Social Security program.  A modest increase in the retirement age for those who will be healthier longer is not "cutting benefits" for people like Granny.

Even so, over the last year, Massa has changed his position.  In the debates, and in a recent interview, he mentioned only reindexing the income cap from $90,000 to $140,000.  His argument is that the cap was based on the 90th percentile income in the early 80's and hasn't changed.  His plan just keeps up with inflation and wage growth, and he thinks this will take care of the system for many years. So, as with the old plan, taxes will be raised on the small percentage of the residents in the 29th who make more that $90K.

The positive content of Kuhl's ad is a distortion but not an outright lie. The real issue with Kuhl's ad is what's missing:  a plan to fix the system.  Unlike Granny, I don't know anyone of my generation or younger who plans to receive a single cent from Social Security.  While everyone pays attention to seniors' incessant whining about their supposedly scant benefits, the post-baby-boomer generation is quietly planning for a future without any benefits whatsoever, since their financial planners won't even include Social Security in retirement income projections.   Our frustration and cynicism grows as plans like Massa's, which are modest and practical, get shot down over and over by scare ads, like Kuhl's, that are aimed at the elderly.  The only programs that end up being discussed are ones, like privatization, that promise fairy-tale endings without sacrifice.

Kuhl has no plan, only a sentiment:  "I regard Social Security as sacred trust".  He was on-board with the soundly rejected Bush plan to privatize Social Security, and he now makes the inane distinction between "privatizing" and "private accounts", saying he's for the latter and not the former.  Well, I'm for eating all the ice cream I want, but not getting fat.  Randy's Social Security "policy" is the financial equivalent of that impossible dream. 

The Kuhl fast one is criticizing someone who makes hard choices without making any of his own, and advancing the fiction that Social Security can be fixed without hard choices.  But that doesn't matter, because Granny is pissed, and a 30-second ad will probably get her to the polls to vote against that bad, bad man, Eric Massa, who's trying to raise her taxes and take away her benefits.

Veterans for Kuhl

When Randy Kuhl announced the formation of a "Veterans for Kuhl" group, I ignored it, just as I ignore most press releases from both candidates.  However, when Roll Call ("The Newspaper of Capitol Hill") picks it up and treats it like news, I guess I need to point out the obvious. 

The press release begins with the claim that the group is a "non-partisan committee".  It ends with the contact phone number for the group, which happens to be Kuhl's campaign headquarters.  Res Ipsa Loquitur.

There's nothing wrong with the Kuhl campaign creating "Group X for Kuhl".  Campaigns do it all the time.  But there's no evidence that "Veterans for Kuhl" represents an independent groundswell of Vets for Kuhl, which would, indeed, be news.

Canandaigua VA Redux

Ever-alert reader Rich forwards the WROC (Rochester CBS Affiliate) coverage of  Eric Massa's press conference on the closing of the acute psychiatric unit at the Canandaigua VA hospital.  Massa's sending a letter to someone at the VA, which by itself is not news.  What is news is Bob Van Wicklin's dumb response.   Let's unpack it:

Our opponent is being highly irresponsible to suggest that services at the Canandaigua VA will be any less that what they are today. 

I'd say that faxing a letter to the VA and holding a press conference is probably more futile than irresponsible.  More importantly, was WROC being irresponsible last week when they broke the story?  How about the D&C?

He's preying on the fears of our veterans.

Generally, "preying on fears" is a charge that sticks when a politician says that some scary event might happen.  This event has happened -- what was feared has occurred.  You can't "prey" on occurrences.

...the facts are that there will be an increase in services at the Canandaigua VA and it will be designated as a national center of excellence for post-traumatic stress disorder.

As usual with Van Wicklin, once we get past the ad hominem, it is time for the spin.  If this is really a fact -- and facts have been sparse in the VA announcements -- it probably doesn't address the issue Massa and the media have raised.    If "increase in services" means more sub-acute beds, as I can only imagine it does (or Van Wicklin wouldn't have been so vague), it still doesn't make up for the loss of acute beds.    Loss of acute beds is loss of service, period, and all the name-calling and spin in the world won't change that fact.

(Update:  A 10/25 D&C story quotes Van Wicklin as saying that Kuhl wanted the VA to wait to close the acute unit until a 22-bed sub-acute unit opens.  It's the range of services, not the number of beds, that counts.  Also, as Rich wrote to point out, the D&C article says that Kuhl knew about the acute unit closing last week and stayed mum about it. )

The Company Massa Keeps

In a piece about Amo Houghton's endorsement in the City News Blog, reporter Krestia DeGeorge mentions a Kuhl press release about Massa's fundraiser with "Liberal Tax and Spend" Nancy Pelosi in New York City.  DeGeorge wonders if a NYC fundraiser with Pelosi is smart, given the Kuhl campaign's attempt to paint Massa as an "outsider".

My take is that the Pelosi fundraiser will have less detrimental effect to the Massa campaign than the Vice-President's visit last month.  Like Cheney, Pelosi mainly attracts the ire of base voters who would never consider switching tickets.  Unlike the Cheney visit, Pelosi is less well-known figure, she's less widely disliked, and her fundraiser in NYC didn't make the Rochester news.

It's worth nothing that Kuhl made no similar fuss when Massa went to New York in August to participate in a fundraiser with Jack Murtha, and Massa didn't make a peep when Republican Majority Leader John Boehner raised funds in Horseheads that same month.  Massa raised a ruckus about Cheney because he wanted to keep Iraq front and center.  Similary, Kuhl's complaint is tied to his campaign's seemingly single-minded focus on Massa's alleged desire to raise taxes.

Kuhl's press release repeats a claim similar to one he made in the debates, that Massa

will raise taxes with the very first bill he cosponsors, the socialized medicine bill to raise taxes at least $24,000 on the average family in the 29th District.

That $24,000 figure is derived by dividing the total cost of healthcare in the United States by the number of families and calling that number a "tax".   Of course, that number doesn't take into account the current cost of health insurance.  That cost would disappear under single-payer health care ("socialized medicine").   The cost of single-payer is up in the air, but one thing is certain:  it will not cost every family 24,000 additional dollars, or anything close to that number.

This is another walk on the stupid side, and what's galling to me is that there's no need for Kuhl to do it.  There are so many other, more reasonable arguments to be made against single-payer health care.  But today's talking point is taxes, and everything has to be hammered into that mold.

Regular readers might notice that I don't generally link to or discuss press releases.  That's for two reasons.  First, most press releases are full of bullshit, no matter who issues them.  Second, there's usually an elephant in the room that goes unmentioned.  In this case, it's the House leadership.  Randy Kuhl wouldn't attend a fundraiser with Denny Hastert in Timbuktu or Alpha Ceti 7, not to mention New York City.  The very fact that Massa is willing to fundraise with his party's leadership is the story Kuhl's press release, and City News, ignores.

Massa's New Ad: Not Stupid

The headline may seem like faint praise (like "Immanuel Kant:  Not Dumb" or "Kim Novak:  Not Ugly"), but I think it's about the highest compliment I can pay an ad in the current environment.

When Randy Kuhl came out with an ad claiming that "Eric Massa has a raise taxes", he assumed that everyone listening was stupid.  Because who, other than someone who's quite dim, would think that a politician would create a plan to raise taxes?   Kuhl might as well have claimed that "Eric Massa has a turn puppies into hamburger."   No sane politician has a plan to raise taxes or slaughter puppies, and any viewer of even minimal intelligence knows it.

Kuhl didn't even bother to use the common "Eric Massa says he won't raise taxes, but..." formulation. That phrasing would have at least assumed that the viewer has an IQ above room temperature, but is easily fooled by the machinations of a clever politician. 

Like most negative commericals, Kuhl's was produced with the hope of a two-fer.  Not only did he try to tar Massa with a ridiculous claim, he hoped to goad Massa into a negative response. "Randy Kuhl says that I'll raise taxes, but Kuhl's deficit has raised taxes on our children, etc."

Here's where Massa was smart.  When your opponent says something hysterical, you can either rise to the same level of hysteria, or you can make a calm, positive assertion that illustrates the stupidity of your opponent's claim.  Massa said, "My family is overtaxed and underserved, just like yours."  Translation:  I know, and you know, that taxes are too high.  Raising them would be stupid.  Neither of us are that dumb.

Massa's ad opens with  "[I] chose to raise my family in upstate New York, just like you." That's a calm, positive rebuttal of the "carpetbagger" accusation that's been floating around.  Massa could have chosen to explain why Navy Vets can't call anyplace home, but his one positive sentence is far more powerful, and probably more widely appreciated, than a recitation of his service record.

I also think that the use of Amo Houghton's first-person endorsement by the Kuhl campaign is not stupid, but it's not as clever as Massa's latest ad. We learn that Amo likes Randy, and Randy knows the area.  These are Randy's known strengths.  It would have been better to use Amo's time to say something positive about one of Randy's perceived weaknesses.

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