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Spin Control: Campaign emails cast wide net with little subtlety

Last week, like most weeks, among the hundreds of emails that made it through the spam filter were some cheery yet urgent missives from politicians.

One was from Patty Murray, Washington’s Democratic senior senator, and another from Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. Not surprisingly, they both wanted the same thing. Money.

Murray’s email began “Dear Jim,” which is a bit familiar, but perhaps understandable considering I’ve covered her for about 20 years. Politicians and reporters are rarely friends in anything but the Facebook sense, but we know each other well enough that she calls me by my first name when not emailing for money.

Cornyn’s began with the more formal “Dear James,” which I don’t use unless signing checks or legal documents. It might be his way of acknowledging that we’ve never met and he’d be hard-pressed to pick me out of a two-person lineup. More likely, it means his committee got my name and email address from some list of political reporters distributed by one of a dozen different agencies.

In the age of email, one gets used to familiarity from total strangers. Public relations spokespersons of all stripes are extremely chummy, whether they are seeking a story on the latest potboiler political novel or a candidate in Arizona. Then there are the barely literate emails from what purport to be young women in some European country that begin “darling” and offer undying affection. (One day, tech services will figure out how they slip past the spam filter, while press releases from the governor sometimes don’t.)

Both Murray and Cornyn described important efforts to elect members of their party to the Senate. And they really, really needed money, right away. A deadline was coming and my $5 or $50 or $500 was needed to help reach their goal of protecting or changing control of the Senate, depending, of course, on who was asking.

From the near breathless tones of these time-sensitive appeals, one might think that after June 30, no political committee anywhere could accept any contribution of any size, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would limp to the election with only the change they might find on the sidewalk.

In truth, they were trying to pad the books before their treasurers turn in the monthly or quarterly reports to the Federal Election Commission, and various politicos and media types compare the latest take to declare winners and losers. But admittedly, an appeal like “for accounting purposes and bragging rights” doesn’t make many people reach for their checkbook.

Anyone who has ever watched a telethon or pledge drive understands that immediacy sells. Sure, you could give to public television any time, but when your local station interrupts “Downton Abbey” to say it needs three more calls – oh wait, now it’s just two more in the next three minutes – to qualify for that matching grant from the anonymous benefactor, you feel a bit more inclined to cough it up.

Cornyn’s appeal seemed especially inspired by PBS, offering “gifts” for donations of different size. A Ronald Reagan commemorative coin would go to donations of $50; a book on Reagan’s wit and wisdom PLUS a chance to attend a special closed-door briefing on GOP strategies to take back the Senate was just $150.

A reporter’s inbox has about a dozen such appeals a week during an election year like this one. We generally don’t mind, because when they make outlandish claims – which can happen when people ask for money – it can make an interesting story.

But for the politicians, there seems no upside. Most reporters have ethics codes that bar them from donating to politicians. Even if we didn’t, most of us have seen politicians do so many stupid things with the money they have that we’re disinclined to give more. It’s surprising there’s not an app that goes through the campaign lists and culls us.

Oh, wait, here’s a new one from Cathy for Congress, the committee to re-elect Eastern Washington’s four-term Republican incumbent to the House. Wonder what she wants.

“Dear Media,” it starts, “Why did the ultra liberal blog Daily Kos refer to me as ‘the lying mouth-piece McMorris Rodgers’?”

Now that’s an attention grabber. But soon she explains that it’s because she’s just holding firm against those profligate Democrats and sticking up for conservative values. Anyone who wants to fight with her should contribute … before the deadline coming on June 30.

I’ll be sure to mention it to Media, next time I see him.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at blogs/spincontrol.