Unless you’re very skillful with your Tivo, you were likely introduced this week to just how nasty the congressional race in the Massachusetts 6th District has become.
Both sides recently debuted negative ads on local network television — a tried and true political strategy, local experts say.
“Negative ads are very effective. Negative ads are so powerful they brought down the Massachusetts Miracle,” said Rob Brown, a Salem State communications professor, referring to the well-timed Willie Horton ad that helped sink former Gov. Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign in 1988.
Both political and communications experts concluded that, while neither ad is particularly noteworthy, both have a clear and easy-to-understand message. One depicts Republican Richard Tisei as “too extreme,” and the other strongly implies that incumbent Democrat John Tierney can’t be trusted.
“They are not very edifying and aren’t going to educate the voter much, but they are simple and effective,” said Timothy Sherratt, a political science professor at Gordon College.
Tierney’s attack ad shows images of tea party flag bearers Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, then follows with an image of Tisei with quotes aiming to link him with their ideology.
“Tea party Republicans and Richard Tisei — what it is, is too extreme,” the female narrator says.
The ads against Tierney aren’t from Tisei’s campaign, but made and paid for by the Young Guns Action Fund — a conservative super PAC affiliated with vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
The YG Action Fund’s ad hits on the congressman’s family issues. With a smiling Tierney as the backdrop, it informs voters about the illegal offshore gambling scheme run by his brothers-in-law, and about his wife’s jail sentence for helping to file fraudulent tax returns for her brother. The ad includes audio of Tierney’s brother-in-law claiming the congressman “knew everything” about the gambling enterprise.
“Imagine what we don’t know? It’s time for John Tierney to man up and tell the truth,” the female narrator says.
The YG Action Fund ad “goes after something much more specific” than Tierney’s ad, Brown said. “It could be more damaging.”
However, most of the electorate already knows about the legal troubles of Tierney’s wife and in-laws, which came up in the last election, too, and that may lessen any impact, he said.
A recent poll by WBUR and MassINC Polling Group found that 57 percent have heard at least “a fair amount” about Tierney’s family’s issues.
The same poll also showed that a majority of voters either don’t know or are undecided about Tisei, explaining why the Tierney campaign has been trying relentlessly to fill in his profile for them.
“Every time you lose, it’s (because) someone else is defining you,” Brown said. “Tierney is saying, ‘If you want to know Richard Tisei, he’s the worst-case scenario, a screaming Rush Limbaugh type.’ Perception can be reality.”
The Tierney campaign, with help from national Democrats, has spent about $530,000 on the ads. They will run about 280 of the 30-second spots on network television through the end of this week.
The YG Action Fund has spent $818,200 on attack ads against Tierney, purchasing at least 380 30-second spots that will run on all four major Boston networks through the end of the week.
Tisei says he had nothing to do with the Young Guns ads; by law, so-called super PACS cannot have any affiliation or communication with the campaign.
But when asked, Tisei would not condemn the message of those ads.
“I didn’t ask the Young Guns to produce a commercial. There are going to be a lot of ads running on both sides; it’s one of 20 toss-up races in the country,” he said.
“There are a lot of people interested, and a lot of outside money will be coming in on both sides. In a perfect world that would not happen.”
The candidates tried this spring to negotiate a plan similar to what Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren agreed to in the U.S. Senate race — effectively barring outside money — but no agreement was reached.
Using outside money
According to OpenSecrets.org, about $820,000 in outside money has been spent in the campaign, all but $10 on Tisei’s behalf. However, according to Tisei, a super PAC associated with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has spent $450,000 on an ad that will begin airing in the district next week. Tisei also said he believes the Democratic National Committee has spent $3.2 million on television advertising that will run during the last weeks of the campaign.
Neither of those ad buys has been reported yet on the Federal Communications Commissions website and could not be independently verified.
Tierney’s campaign defended its decision to attack Tisei and criticized the Republican for allowing a third party to influence the election.
“Voters deserve to know what Mr. Tisei really stands for, and his own words show just how deeply he is in line with the tea party agenda of the Republican Party,” said Grant Herring, a Tierney spokesman.
“Mr. Tisei should be ashamed of himself for letting Paul Ryan’s super PAC do his dirty work. Tisei had the opportunity to sign the People’s Pledge to keep these shadowy groups out of the race, but rejected it and got a right-wing bailout.”
To date, the Tisei campaign has run three ads on television, all of which generally focus on Tisei. The third, which began appearing this week, is his first campaign-financed ad that mentions Tierney.
“We all learned that scandal-plagued Congressman John Tierney cannot be trusted. Now he’s lying about Richard Tisei,” the narrator says in the ad’s opening line, before quickly pivoting into an ad about Tisei’s independent streak as a lawmaker.
In an interview Tisei nevertheless lauded his own “positive campaign,” while bashing Tierney’s negative advertisement.
“This is why people hate Washington politics. John Tierney is the quintessential Washington politician,” Tisei said. “Demonize the opponent and label everyone with a different opinion as an extremist. People see through this; they see exactly what he’s doing.”
Both campaigns said the negative advertising shows the others’ true colors.
“The fact that he is now getting almost $1 million dollars in ads from the leaders of the tea party in Washington says it all about Richard Tisei — both who he is and what he stands for,” Herring said.
“People who saw (Tierney’s) ad and know me got a good chuckle out of it,” said Tisei, who is considered liberal on social issues, a far cry from Limbaugh and Palin.
For all the hubub, Dennis Lanson, professor of communication at Endicott College, isn’t sure whether either negative ad is effective enough to move the needle for either candidate.
“If I’m a Democrat, I probably hate (Tisei) anyway. If I’m a Republican, I’m going to vote for him anyway,” he said. “But who’s in the middle? The key is how to turn those few people who are still left.”