With less than three weeks to go in the congressional campaign season, the gloves are not just off — the brass knuckles are on. In one of the most bitterly contested congressional races in years, incumbent and prospective Senate and House candidates are trading vicious accusations that range from mistress abuse to support for man-boy love associations.
Among the reasons things have gotten so nasty is that Republicans are no longer worried about possibly losing the House — they're worried they might lose the Senate as well. Between the Mark Foley page scandal, the mounting death toll in Iraq and a growing anti-incumbent wave, Republicans are facing stiff competition from Democrats in places they thought they were safe.
How bad are things? Some Republicans have tried to distance themselves from President Bush, lashed out at their own party's choices and fallen so far behind in polls that the White House has cut bait and left them behind to focus on more winnable races.
Here are some lowlights:
- At this week's signing of the controversial Military Commissions Act of 2006 — which confirms new rules on treatment of terror detainees (see "Congress Passing Detainee Bill; Wiretapping Measure Delayed") — embattled Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert issued a statement alleging that "the Democratic plan would gingerly pamper the terrorists who plan to destroy innocent Americans."
- The bitter battle between former Democrat/ now independent Senator Joseph Lieberman and challenger Ned Lamont has already included claims earlier in the contest that Lamont's campaign intentionally hacked the senator's Web site to knock it offline. Last week, former Connecticut state treasurer and Lamont backer Henry Parker accused Lieberman of lying about his civil-rights record and his work with the late Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s, only to recant a short time later. Lamont shot back soon after complaining that Lieberman's recent TV ad slandered him by falsely claiming he'd laid off 68 percent of his cable TV company's workers.
- In ads that began airing in late September, North Carolina Republican House candidate Vernon Robinson accuses Democratic Representative Brad Miller of voting to deny body armor for soldiers amid images of flag-draped coffins, then shows an image of Miller with an "XXX" over his face saying he'd rather spend money on studying Vietnamese prostitutes in San Francisco, the "masturbation habits of old men" and the arousal of teenage girls. According to Factcheck.org, Miller did not vote in a way that would have denied armor for troops, and there was no connection between the National Institutes of Health studies — aimed at slowing the spread of AIDS, improving the lives of seniors as their sexual function declines and understanding homosexuality — and funding for body armor. The ad includes the line, "Brad Miller pays for sex, but not for body armor for our troops."
- After vowing to run on the issues, Pennsylvanian Democratic challenger Chris Carney ran ads in which he accused Republican representative Don Sherwood of holding "happy-hour fundraisers with people who cover up the cyber-molestation of children," something that should be below "even the questionable morals of Don Sherwood." Carney was referring to allegations that Sherwood choked his mistress at his Washington, D.C., apartment in 2004. Sherwood has addressed the incident in an ad and publicly apologized for his indiscretion, but denied the choking incident, which led to a lawsuit he settled out of court with the woman.
- One of the dirtiest battles isn't even for the Congress, but for the governor's office of Ohio, which has emerged as one of the most important states in presidential politics. Democratic candidate Ted Strickland angrily lashed out at Republican challenger Ken Blackwell this week, who during a debate on Monday suggested that Strickland tried to cover up a 12-year-old public-indecency charge against a former aide who was convicted of exposing himself to children while a student at Ohio University. Strickland has claimed he was unaware of the conviction until the end of a re-election campaign in 1998. Blackwell's campaign has also questioned why Strickland took a trip to Italy with the aide after the election, suggesting that Strickland — who has been married for 18 years — may be homosexual, an implication the Blackwell campaign has made before. Perhaps most controversially, Blackwell tried to link Strickland to child sex predators by suggesting that his opponent backed a U.S. House resolution supported by the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), by voting "present" on a congressional resolution later applauded by the association. Strickland, who is a psychologist, has said he could not support the resolution because it said a child who had been sexually abused could not have healthy relationships as an adult.
- According to The Washington Post, Kentucky Republican Representative Anne Northup recently accused Democratic challenger John Yarmuth of wanting to punish SUV owners, endorsing the legalization of marijuana and supporting teenage drinking. "Parents should be concerned," she said, according to the paper. "He has a lot of goofy ideas." While the Post said her characterizations of his columns for the alternative paper he founded, the Louisville Eccentric Observer, were not exactly fair-minded, they weren't totally false, either: The columns advocated taxes on gas-guzzling vehicles, praised Canada for decriminalizing marijuana to ease prison overcrowding, and speculated whether lowering the drinking age should be considered.
- Republican campaign ads supporting Indiana Representative John Hostettler have accused former sheriff and Democratic challenger Brad Ellsworth's police department of capturing and mistakenly releasing a suspected child rapist. A subsequent anonymous automated phone message accused Hostettler of "wanting gun rights for convicted sex offenders," claiming that he voted against making it a crime to sell guns to sex offenders, including child rapists.
- In Ohio, Democratic Representative Sherrod Brown lashed out at recent ads by Republican Senator Mike DeWine in which DeWine was shown — possibly in violation of Defense Department rules — commiserating with a soldier in uniform. Brown's ads said, "Mike DeWine is slinging mud, taking votes out of context," adding, "What kind of man would use our troops to smear his opponent?" DeWine was accused earlier in the campaign of doctoring footage of the burning Twin Towers in a different commercial.
- One of the strangest ads running is a new spot targeting black voters in 10 battleground states. It opens with a female announcer saying, "Black babies are terminated at triple the rate of white babies," over the sound of thunder and a baby crying. She adds, "The Democratic Party supports these abortion laws that are decimating our people, but the individual's right to life is protected in the Republican platform. Democrats say they want our vote. Why don't they want our lives?" In another one of the spots, one man says to another, "If you make a little mistake with one of your 'hos,' you'll want to dispose of that problem tout de suite, no questions asked," to which his companion responds, "That's too cold. I don't snuff my own seed." The message from the first man? "Maybe you do have a reason to vote Republican." The ads were financed by white billionaire businessman J. Patrick Rooney, who funded ads against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, and they also include a spot that attempts to link Democrats to Republican white supremacist David Duke, who spoke at an anti-war rally in Syria last year. "I can understand why a Ku Klux Klan cracker like David Duke makes nice with the terrorists," a male announcer says. "What I want to know is why so many of the Democrat politicians I helped elect are on the same side of the Iraq war as David Duke."
- In her run against Pennsylvania Democratic Representative John Murtha, Republican candidate Diana Irey used a quote widely — but inaccurately — attributed to Abraham Lincoln that says members of Congress who act in ways that hurt military morale during wartime are "saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged." She later retracted the claim against decorated Vietnam War veteran Murtha and said "Lincoln's remedy" of hanging was too extreme.
- Republican Senator Rick Santorum began running an ad in September showing rival Bob Casey holding a campaign meeting inside a prison cell, describing the shady, cigar-smoking men in the lock-up as Casey's "campaign team." The ad says that many of Casey's largest contributors are convicted felons or under federal investigation. According to the nonpartisan site Factcheck.org, none of the unnamed men portrayed in the ad currently work for the Casey campaign and only one ever had an official role. While the men or the political committees they controlled did donate large sums of money to Casey at some point, all but one of the contributions were to previous Casey electoral efforts. Two of the men mentioned in the ad have contributed small amounts to Santorum as well, according to the site.
- An automated phone call claims Democratic Indiana House candidate Baron Hill "voted to allow the sale of a broad range of violent and sexually explicit materials to minors." According to Factcheck.org, the ad is an apparent reference to a vote Hill cast in 1999 against a Republican-sponsored measure to bar the sale of certain items to kids, a vote in which Hill, along with a majority of Democrats and a significant number of House Republicans, voted to stick with existing laws. Arguing that it was overly broad and possibly violated the First Amendment, the site reported that almost twice as many lawmakers opposed the bill as voted for it, with some saying it could potentially make it illegal for children to read the Bible or a daily newspaper. The calls were mainly sponsored by a group led by the same man who funded the anti-John Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign in 2004.
- Democratic House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland apologized to Maryland Lieutenant Governor and Republican Senate candidate Michael Steele, who is black, for saying that Steele "slavishly" supported the Republican party, according to CNN. Hoyer, who was speaking to a largely black audience at a campaign event for Steele's Democratic opponent, Representative Ben Cardin, said "I should not have used those words." While Hoyer's office released a statement saying there was little offense to the comment, Steele's spokesperson disagreed, saying that in 2002 Hoyer was quoted as referring to Steele as a "token" candidate, a quote Hoyer said at the time was taken out of context.
- Republican leaders are urging one of their own congressional candidates to quit after he acknowledged that his campaign sent out a letter intended to scare off Latino voters. According to the Los Angeles Times, California Republican Tan Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who is fighting a tough campaign against longtime Democratic incumbent Loretta Sanchez, could be facing civil and criminal liability for voting-rights violations over the letter sent to 14,000 registered voters. Written in Spanish, the letter stated, "You are advised that if your residence in this country is illegal or you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time." Nguyen fired his campaign's office manager, who helped produce the letter, of which Nguyen said he was unaware.
- In one of the oddest attack ads, Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan says, "The president could stop the trash — he won't. The Congress could act — it hasn't. So I took the fight directly to Canada — and got something done. And I won't stop until all the trash stops." She accuses Republican challenger Michael Bouchard of voting in the state legislature to allow the importation of trash from Canada.
- Both liberals and conservatives were angry — for different reasons, naturally — about recent radio ads from a black conservative group that claimed that late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican, according to The Washington Post. The ad ran in Georgia, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Washington, D.C., area, and is slated to run again in those areas as well as major cities in Florida. In the ad, a black woman says, "Dr. King was a real man," to which a second woman responds, "You know he was a Republican." The women go on to claim that Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan.