October 30, 2008 in Idaho

Best to view latest ads warily, expert warns

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – In the final days before the election, three new campaign commercials are airing in Idaho’s hot 1st District congressional race.

They include one from each of the candidates, GOP Rep. Bill Sali and Democratic challenger Walt Minnick, and a new one from an outside group, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, targeting Sali.

And the National Republican Congressional Committee is still running an anti-Minnick ad it began airing two weeks ago, though Project VoteSmart has questioned the ad’s use of its 1996 candidate survey and the Minnick campaign has dubbed it a “smear.”

Jim Weatherby, Boise State University political scientist emeritus, said the new DCCC ad is less likely to move voters than the two candidates’ own messages. The group’s ad, dubbed “Strange Ideas,” criticizes Sali for saying in a 2006 survey he’d support a 23 percent national sales tax, but it doesn’t mention he favored that concept only in exchange for abolishing the IRS and the federal income tax.

Said Weatherby: “I don’t remember when Bill Sali made this a major point of his campaign or his service in Congress. … It’s like, what?”

The candidates have launched their own aggressive ads. Minnick’s ad uses quotes from newspaper endorsement editorials to criticize Sali for “embarrassing, unproductive, irrelevant, erratic behavior.”

The ad then shows Minnick, saying he “offers leadership for troubled times” and closes with his campaign slogan, “Walt Minnick: right for Idaho.”

Weatherby said the ad makes effective use of strong endorsements. “Apparently none of those words are taken out of context,” he said.

Weatherby said the ad also reinforces the subtle message of Minnick’s campaign slogan and the use of the word “right” – that he’s positioning himself as a conservative, though he’s a Democrat.

Sali’s ad shows pictures of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and declares, “The liberal Democrats who run Congress have a plan. Walt Minnick is part of it. The liberals are pouring big money into Minnick’s negative campaign, trying to steal a congressional seat here, if Minnick can hide his liberal agenda.”

The ad characterizes Minnick as a tax-raiser, based in part on the Sali campaign’s contention that if all of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts aren’t made permanent, an average Idaho family would pay $2,200 a year more in taxes.

However, Minnick doesn’t advocate doing away with all of those tax cuts; he favors targeting them toward the middle class.

The ad also claims Minnick “opposed defending marriage” because he opposed a 2006 Idaho constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions; Minnick says he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman but that the measure went too far to restrict how businesses can provide benefits to employees.

“Sali’s ad is very hard-hitting – it gets right to the issue of higher taxes, and that’s an issue that Republicans all over the country are running on: Elect a Democrat and your taxes will go up,” Weatherby said. “Never mind whether that can be proven or not.”

But the Sali ad’s claims and the DCCC ad’s claims both seem exaggerated and off the mark, Weatherby said. “The national Democratic ad – does that bear any resemblance to the Sali position? I don’t think so. Is Walt Minnick a big-spending liberal? No, I don’t think so.”

Sali’s ad, which offers no claims about incumbent Sali himself, closes with, “The real Walt Minnick – a Washington liberal,” despite the fact that the last time Minnick, a former Republican, worked in Washington, D.C., it was for the Nixon White House.

“Hopefully the voter can sort out the truth somewhere in this blizzard of attack ads,” Weatherby said. “At this point in the campaign, there ought to be a warning label put on these ads, saying, ‘Watching these ads might be hazardous to your decision making.’ ”

Weatherby advised voters: “Beware, beware. There are other sources of information.”

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