By Simon Gonzaliz
The news release was certainly attention grabbing, with a good old-fashioned screamer headline: “Beth Dawson Responds to ‘Nameless, Faceless Cowards.’”
That phrase was a particular favorite of the release, repeated five times in a few paragraphs. Clearly, the Dawson campaign was quite upset.
The object of her ire — the nameless, faceless cowards — was a shadowy group behind a series of negative ads aimed at convincing the good citizens of New Hanover County, at least those of the Republican persuasion, to give the chair of the Board of Commissioners her marching orders. The ads were paid for by an anonymous political action committee based in Raleigh called the Conservative Future Fund Inc.
Dawson narrowly lost her bid for re-election on Tuesday night, finishing fourth in the race to select three Republican candidates for the November ballot. Less than 400 votes separated her from third.
Dawson has been locked in a battle with her fellow party members for some time. Commissioners Woody White and Patricia Kusek have been very vocal in accusing Dawson of being a RINO (Republican in name only) and not a true conservative.
The battle has been waged in the press, on social media, even on the home page of the New Hanover County Republican Party website, where Dawson was accused of abandoning “our conservative values and distancing herself from the party.”
According to Republican Party leadership, Dawson’s most egregious offense was siding with the Democrats on the commission. Her most treasonous act, they claimed, was “forcing Commissioner Woody White from the Cape Fear Community College board.”
The charges that she abandoned conservative values and puts her interests above other conservatives were repeated in the ads.
Since primaries tend to attract the most partisan voters who would have taken the RINO charge seriously, it’s hard to say how much of an impact the attack ads had on the race. But in a race decided by less than 400 votes, the possibility exists that they decided the outcome.
The county commission race wasn’t the only local contest tinged with negativity. In the battle for the N.C. House, Tammy Covil did her best to demonize candidate Holly Grange by tying her to Hillary Clinton and the Benghazi scandal. The Covil campaign even bought the domain hollygranger.com and populated it with the message to “stop electing people like Hillary Clinton and Holly Grange.”
She failed. Grange handily won, with 62 percent of the vote.
Negative campaigning isn’t a modern phenomenon. In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s campaign accused President John Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Furthermore, Adams was called a “blind, bald, toothless man” who “secretly wants to start a war with France.”
Adams’ camp countered with its own incredibly vile slurs, slanderously calling Jefferson — Adams’ vice president and heretofore friend — “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” These racial slurs would not be tolerated today.
Still, in recent years it does seem the negative rhetoric has become more prevalent.
The Wesleyan Media Project at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, monitored and analyzed televised campaign ads during the last presidential race (2012) and found that 64 percent of the ads that aired between June 1 and Election Day were purely negative. Less than 15 percent were considered positive. By contrast, 40 percent of the ads in the previous 2000 election cycle were deemed positive.
The danger of attack ads can be that the entire electorate is repulsed. In the 2014 election season, the contest for Senate in the state was particularly nasty. Democrat incumbent Kay Granger and Republican challenger Thom Tillis ran negative ad after negative ad. They each did such an excellent job of convincing me how repulsive the other one was, I ended up sitting out the election and not voting for either.
Opinion is split on the efficacy of negative campaigning. Regardless, it is an unfortunate reality of politics. As much as we might long to be given reasons why we should vote for a particular candidate rather than against their opponent, attack ads are here to stay.
With the North Carolina primary in the rearview mirror, we should get a break from it for a while. But when things heat up again in the fall, remember one very important thing: there’s always the mute button.