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GOP tactics failing the smell test

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Dirty tricks I: The false attacks on Chris Heagarty

You don't need a road map to know which one of the Triangle's legislative districts the Republicans are trying hardest to grab from a Democratic incumbent. Just follow the mailings to House District 41, a swing seat held by state Rep. Chris Heagarty. Heagarty was appointed to fill a vacancy and is running on his own for the first time. Morrisville Town Councilman Tom Murry is his GOP opponent.

Or is he?

So far, the "campaign"—such as it is—has been dominated by a series of anti-Heagarty mailings from a supposedly nonpartisan group called Real Jobs NC. The group is about as nonpartisan as the GOP's elephant: All of its $500,000 in contributions, according to its one official report to the N.C. Board of Elections in mid-August, come from a Republican Party organization, a "nonpartisan" group called Rightchange.com controlled by a conservative Wilmington businessman, Fred Eschelman, and from Variety Stores, one of the family businesses controlled by Republican millionaire Art Pope of Raleigh.

Unfortunately for the anti-Heagarty cause, however, the Real Jobs fliers are replete with mistakes, including the rather fundamental one of blaming Heagarty for votes he never cast. Heagarty is accused of backing "pork barrel" projects in the 2009 budget bill. But Heagarty wasn't seated in the House until late 2009, long after the budget bill was enacted.

"Real Bull," the Heagarty campaign calls the fliers.

The fourth anti-Heagarty mailing from Real Jobs NC, which is arriving in mailboxes this week, does contain an apology, according to Heagarty campaign manager Mike Radionchenko. "It's one-eighth of the flier. The rest is another attack."

One irony in the nonpartisan strafing is that Heagarty, in the decade before his appointment when he was executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, worked for a nonpartisan board of directors. The center advocated for election law reforms, including one that required tax-exempt, nonprofit 527 groups like Real Jobs NC to disclose their donors to the state Board of Elections prior to Election Day. Previously, Real Jobs' donors might have remained a mystery until the election was over.

Heagarty noted, too, that his picture in one of the Real Jobs fliers was cropped from a group shot taken at a chamber of commerce event in Charlotte, where he was talking up election reforms with, among others, state Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin—a Republican.

As for Murry, he declined to disavow the Real Jobs fliers, saying he's focused on his own campaign and can't allow himself to be distracted by "the noise" from "outside groups." Pointing to mistakes made by other campaigns, he said everyone should try hard to get their facts right. "Fact-checking is important," Murry said.


Dirty Tricks II: Renee Ellmers goes "tea party" on Bob Etheridge

You don't need a road map, either, to know which of the Triangle's congressional districts the Republicans are hoping to grab from a Democratic incumbent. It's U.S. House District 2, where Rep. Bob Etheridge has been subjected to a steady pounding for months by GOP groups. Etheridge was starting to look a bit shaky until his actual Republican opponent, Renee Ellmers, went into action and quickly stamped herself a tea party crackpot.

It started with the young GOP operatives who stuck a camera in Etheridge's face on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk in June and were rewarded when Etheridge tried to wrestle it away from them while verbally blasting them. Etheridge quickly apologized, but the damage was done and captured for all to see—his boorish behavior was splashed on the political blogs within hours.

Soon, TV stations aired ads by an "independent, bipartisan, pro-business advocacy organization" called Americans for Job Security (read: unnamed Republicans), one of those "business league" organizations—a 501(c)(6) for federal tax purposes—which is not required to disclose its donors ("members").

Such groups were freed to name names in their "advocacy" advertising by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case earlier this year, which extended to businesses the same free-speech rights as people.

So under the cover of anonymity, AJS started blasting away at "Bob Etheridge and Nancy Pelosi's spending." The objects of the attacks were President Obama's economic stimulus package and health care reform.

This could've set the stage for Ellmers, who wants health care reform repealed and has at least potential standing to address that issue as a nurse and co-owner (with her physician husband) of a medical practice in Dunn. Ellmers could've tucked in right behind her rich, anonymous friends.

Instead, however, she launched a wild attack on the proposed Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. It would be a "victory mosque" for the 9/11 terrorists, Ellmers' ad declares. A calamitous prospect against which Etheridge "won't take a stand," it adds.

Ellmers' ad takes a page right out of the old Jesse Helms "Where Do You Stand, Jim Hunt" playbook, which is unsurprising, given that old Helms hand Carter Wrenn wrote the ad for her. Except that Helms' old ads had something to do with the Senate seat he held and Hunt wanted. Etheridge has nothing to do with whether an Islamic center is ever built in New York.

That's aside from the fact that the ad implies that the center would be a mosque and that it would be built right at Ground Zero, neither of which is true. (It would be two-and-half blocks away. A mosque is already inside the building; an Islamic community center is what would be constructed.)

Still, Ellmers got the payoff she wanted in the form of national media attention, but not the kind that will help her. In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, for example, Ellmers was tripped up trying to argue that the Islamic center's backers are—or might be—or we don't know if they are—terrorists. Exasperated, she finally turned on Cooper and said: "I guess what I could ask you is, are you anti-religion, are you anti-Christian in your thinking?"

"That's like, the lowest response I ever heard from a candidate," Cooper shot back.

Etheridge, meanwhile, was advised by Democratic strategist and blogger Gary Pearce (he runs Talking Politics with—wait for it—Carter Wrenn) to "stand up and call the ad what it is"—an appeal to the worst in us."

If only. Etheridge's actual response, via spokesman Mike Davis: "Bob Etheridge has never thought that building his mosque and community center so close to Ground Zero is a good idea."

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