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Organization says anti-Minnick ad misused its survey

BOISE – A new campaign commercial targeting Idaho Democratic congressional candidate Walt Minnick has angered a nonpartisan organization that says its candidate survey is misused in the ad.

“That’s pretty flagrant,” Adelaide Elm, a board member of Project VoteSmart, said of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s new anti-Minnick ad.

The ad claims that Minnick “supported higher income taxes across the board,” citing the 1996 candidate survey that Project VoteSmart published when Minnick was running for the U.S. Senate and also citing 1996 and 2007 federal tax tables.

But in the 1996 survey, Minnick was asked to “indicate the changes you support, if any, concerning the tax levels for the following categories.” For all income categories, Minnick selected the no-change option, “maintain status.”

Brendan Buck, spokesman for the NRCC, noted that tax rates were higher in 1996 than they are now, since the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. “All taxes at the time were higher than they are today,” he said. Thus, he said, Minnick was supporting higher taxes.

John Foster, spokesman for Minnick’s campaign, called that “tortured logic,” and said Minnick favors tax cuts for the middle class. The ad’s claim is “not accurate,” he said.

Brandon Horton, press secretary for Project VoteSmart, pointed to clear, bold-faced warnings on the group’s Web site that its surveys aren’t to be used “in any campaign activity, including advertising, debates and speeches.”

“Unfortunately we can’t copyright all the information that’s given to us,” he said. “We try to make it clear as possible that information provided to our site is not to be used for any political means … especially in attack ads, because quite frequently it’s used improperly.”

He added, “If people want to see how a person responded to our test, they should go to our site. It’s this kind of negative politics that we’re directly opposed to.”

Asked about Project VoteSmart’s concerns, Buck said, “I think the most important thing is the voters see where people stand on the issues, and clearly Walter Minnick demonstrated that he believes taxes should be higher than they are now.”

The NRCC’s ad is running throughout the 1st Congressional District, including in the Spokane market. The group’s Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is running its own ad targeting incumbent GOP Rep. Bill Sali, showing him with a flock of sheep and suggesting he’s “hanging with the wrong flock in Washington.”

Minnick declined to respond to the Project VoteSmart survey this year, a move the group said is part of a trend.

“In 1996, we actually had 100 percent of congressional candidates in Idaho return the test,” Horton said. “That’s down to 44 percent this year. … Candidates are becoming less and less willing to expose their issue positions, and it is for such reasons as what he’s run into – attacks.”

Elm said the VoteSmart survey response rate among federal candidates has “fallen dramatically” across the nation. “That in part is because of this business about twisting their words and using them against them in attack ads.”

Foster said Minnick didn’t complete the VoteSmart survey this year because of time constraints. “He answered dozens of surveys, and you only have time to do so many,” Foster said. “We favored spending more time on local surveys.”

Sali also declined to fill out the group’s survey, dubbed the “Political Courage Test.”

Foster said he found the NRCC’s use of the survey “very distasteful,” saying it’s a “smear … based on this one thing that they have spun for their purposes, and it says explicitly that they are not allowed to use it, and they do it anyway. … I think people are tired of this kind of campaign.”