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House Republicans distort and dissemble in slashing TV ads

Republicans allied with Rep. Mike Coffman (pictured) claimed his opponent, Democrat Jason Crow, had neglected veterans. Crow is a veteran and had won a “lawyer of the year” award for his veterans advocacy. Veterans protested the claim at Coffman‘s office. | David Zalubowski/AP photo

Elections

In one spot, a former CIA operative is accused of harboring terrorist sympathies. In others, military vets are said to be anti-American.

Updated

Democratic House candidate Jason Crow received a Bronze Star for heroism in Iraq and a “lawyer of the year” award for his veterans advocacy. But according to his GOP adversaries, he has “neglected” Colorado veterans.

Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger spent nearly a decade fighting terrorists as an undercover CIA officer. But to hear Republicans tell it, she harbors terrorist sympathies.

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Attack ads have always been a staple of campaign season. But Republicans have twisted facts in some ads to an extraordinary degree as they fight to save their House majority, weaving narratives about Democratic candidates that are misleading at best — or blatantly false at worst.

In several ads, military vets — who count as some of Democrats’ best recruits to defeat sitting Republicans this year — have had their patriotism called into question. One spot insinuates that Spanberger, who is challenging Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), has ties to extremists because she taught at a Saudi Arabia-funded Muslim school that two infamous terrorists once attended. The CIA not only knew about the job, but also later hired Spanberger and employed her for eight years.

Democrats say the spots, aired mostly by the outside GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee, smack of desperation. In some cases, local Republicans, religious leaders and newspaper editorial boards have denounced the attacks.

The aggressive tactics highlight a party grappling to save its majority. Many of the Democrats who’ve come under attack have short or nonexistent records in political office, allowing Republicans to pick over their personal lives for any scraps to use against them.

“Republicans are having a heck of a time right now, and they’re just looking to attack anywhere they think they might be able to” and “throwing whatever they have at the wall to see what sticks,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) told reporters at a Bloomberg breakfast last week, calling the attacks “smears.”

Targets of the ads have called for them to be taken down and have spent time and resources trying to rebut the claims. Republicans involved in making the ads say that’s exactly their intention: to keep Democrats on the defensive.

They also argue that Democrats would be doing the same thing if the roles were reversed.

“The mere fact that Democrats are complaining about CLF ads speaks to the effectiveness of the ads and the degree to which it’s taken Democratic candidates in key races off their message,” CLF spokeswoman Courtney Alexander said.

Democrats argue that the charges have backfired and helped Democratic candidates raise money and gain ground on their Republican rivals. Spanberger is now in a dead heat with Brat, according to a Sept. 24 internal poll, and she raised more money after the “terrorist” ad launched than she did during the entire first quarter of 2017. Among likely voters, she’s up 5 points, her campaign says.

But Republicans say their “Terror High” ad actually helped reverse Brat’s fortunes: They say he now has a narrow lead after being tied with Spanberger in August, according to their polling.

Both parties, of course, always spend heavily on opposition research to sniff out their opponents’ weaknesses and flash them before voters. But it’s one thing to highlight flaws in a candidate’s record, as Republicans have done with Wisconsin Democrat Randy Bryce’s drunken driving arrest. It’s another to connect dots that aren’t there.

CLF’s recent attack on Ohio Democrat Aftab Pureval, for example, accuses the Indian-Tibetan, first-generation American of aiding his former employer in making “millions” by “helping Libyans reduce payments owed to families of Americans killed by Libyan terrorism,” referencing the restitution agreement for families of the victims of the 1988 terrorist attack over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Dave Brat

But Pureval wasn’t working for the Washington law firm that reached the restitution agreement when it was initially struck. When he did join the firm, Pureval worked on anti-trust litigation.

Not mentioned in the ad was the fact that former President George W. Bush backed the settlement negotiation with Libya — and that Rep. Steve Chabot, Pureval’s GOP opponent, did not object when the agreement was approved in the House.

Local media called the attack “misleading.” And members of one American family who lost their father in the Libyan attack were so outraged by the ad that they reached out to donate to Pureval’s campaign.

“My response to the CLF ad involved words that are best not repeated here,” Scott Rosen wrote in a letter to Pureval’s campaign. He was 5 years old when his father, Saul Mark Rosen, was killed in the Lockerbie bombing, leaving his mom to raise two children. “The attempt to connect you to the murder of my father was utterly beyond the pale.”

CLF says the ad has helped Chabot stretch his lead over Pureval, according to its internal polling.

But the group hasn’t seen the same results in other races — particularly in Colorado, where many Republicans believe Rep. Mike Coffman is going to lose. There, CLF portrayed Crow as a willing bystander to the massive Veterans Affairs Department backlog scandal. (The group recently pulled its ads from the district.)

Crow sat on the local department’s board from 2009 to 2014, and Republicans have highlighted his absence from more than a dozen board meetings to say he’s at fault.

“While veterans suffered from the VA scandal, Crow didn’t show up for work,” one ad said. “Jason Crow neglected Colorado veterans.”

Crow’s campaign said his wife was either on bed rest due to pregnancy complications or that they’d had a new baby at the time of the missed meetings.

Backlash was swift. Local veterans who know Crow showed up at Coffman’s office to protest. Crow’s campaign highlighted the thousands of pro bono hours he has dedicated to helping veterans with substance abuse issues, as well as the lawyer of the year award he received in 2010 from the Denver Bar Association for his veterans advocacy.

Protesters.

In Spanberger’s case, CLF ran a commercial calling attention to her onetime position as a substitute teacher at the Saudi school. Spanberger never worked with the two future terrorists; she had left the school before it came under congressional scrutiny. She later received a top-secret clearance with the CIA.

“So dangerous, even Chuck Schumer called for the school to be shut down,” the ad nonetheless warns. “But Abigail Spanberger cashed her paychecks like nothing was wrong.”

Some Republican candidates have launched similar attacks impugning the motives or patriotism of their opponents. West Virginia Republican candidate Carol Miller ran a clip of her Democratic rival, Richard Ojeda, saying “the United States of America is not the greatest country.” One vet in the spot accuses Ojeda, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, of “stepping on the graves of every dead soldier.”

What Ojeda actually said is that U.S. isn’t the greatest country because homelessness is rampant, the health care system is lacking and the opioid epidemic has been allowed to fester. Ojeda issued his own ad in response, talking about the names of fallen soldiers tattooed on his back.

“My military record and my love of country has come under fire … by Carol Miller,” an angry Ojeda said in the video filmed before a veterans memorial. “How dare she! A millionaire, who has enjoyed a life of privilege under the very freedoms that I have fought for.”

In New York, Republicans have accused Democratic hopeful Antonio Delgado of “attacking our democracy” because the former rapper once sang about finding peace in the Middle East. In the years-old antiwar jam, Delgado, who went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and become a Rhodes scholar, says “God bless America, God bless Iraq, God bless us all.”

But an NRCC ad highlights only the “God bless Iraq” line. Delgado is running against vulnerable GOP Rep. John Faso.

The party has also hit Delgado for being a “big city rapper” and not “like us,” depicting the lawyer wearing a dark hoodie and playing his old rap songs that reference sex and drugs and use of the N-word.

Nearly 20 local clergy members denounced the attacks for their racial undertones; Delgado is African-American. A local radio station said it recently pulled an ad sponsored by CLF for its “inaccuracy.” (CLF disputes that the ad was removed, arguing that PAC officials took it down of their own accord.) Even the district’s former Republican congressman, Chris Gibson, has expressed discomfort.

“Shame on you!” the religious leaders wrote to Faso, asking him to denounce the ads, which he has not done. “This tactic should be called out for what it is, a thinly veiled, racist attack for the purpose of insinuating fear in the voters in our district.”

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