August 15, 2018
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Claims made in political campaign TV ads disputed as Maine election season heats up

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The State House in Augusta.
By Scott Thistle, Sun Journal
Updated:

Maine conventional wisdom suggests that the election season doesn’t really start until after Labor Day — and true to form, the campaigns for governor, Maine’s seats in the U.S. Congress and the State House are getting into full swing.

Also in full swing are the needling and nitpicking that goes on between the competing campaigns, candidates and political operatives — over claims being made in television advertising.

These advertisements almost invariably contain a snapshot of a newspaper headline that makes a candidate appear in either a favorable light or a negative one — and in some cases, a spawn of Satan.

Well-known for their sensibility and sensitivity, the only good thing most Maine voters and television viewers see in the ads is akin to what Bangor Daily News blogger, former state senator and 2012 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Cynthia Dill sees.

She couldn’t recall any of the current political ads airing on television, Dill said recently.

“Maybe because none have made me laugh or feel any emotion other than relief that what I’m seeing is not a commercial for erectile dysfunction medication,” she said.

This week, the Maine Republican Party challenged a television advertisement being aired by the campaign of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic nominee for governor. The ad touts Michaud’s involvement, as a congressman, in pushing the Pentagon to buy athletic footwear for the troops that’s made in the United States — but federal law already requires American troops to be outfitted with American-made uniforms.

Soldiers and other service members also get an athletic footwear allowance, with which they have been allowed to buy the athletic shoes of their choice. Overall, the advertisement doesn’t delve into the details of the congressional debate or even explore the fact that not all American-made athletic shoes meet the federal standards — or for that matter the best fit — for what you can imagine are a wide variety of foot types.

The advertisement in question features a graphic that replicates a newspaper headline — but the newspaper named in the masthead doesn’t exist.

And while it’s true there is no newspaper named the “State News Services,” there is a news entity called the “States News Services,” based in a Washington, D.C., that collects and repackages news releases issued from offices of members of Congress and other entities in Washington, D.C. The “story” and headline in question even disclose that it’s a news release from Michaud’s congressional office.

Still, Michaud, Maine’s 2nd District U.S. congressman, has a long track record — no pun intended — dating back to at least 2010, on pushing to outfit our troops with all “Made-in-the-U.S.A.” uniforms, including their athletic footwear, as already required by federal law.

The Maine connection for Michaud, of course, is that Maine’s New Balance running shoe factories would hopefully be a primary supplier of this type of footwear and their workers would benefit from the steady demand. It’s not only a “buy America” position, but it also is a “Maine jobs” stance.

The headline in question praises the passage of an amendment to a bill — that’s right, not a bill, but an amendment to a bill. To further complicate matters, the bill itself never passed into law and failed to move out of the U.S. Senate. The measure did pass in the House, however, as the ad suggests.

After Michaud’s advocacy, the Department of Defense adjusted its policy, and it is likely that New Balance will benefit, in part, from this policy shift. The new policy will require servicemen and women, “when practicable” to purchase American-made athletic footwear.

Michaud’s campaign, in defending the ad, released a letter from the U.S. Department of Defense that says it is implementing the policy change that would facilitate a cost-effective transition that allows military bases to gradually restock the shoes they sell in military stores. The letter also thanks Michaud for sharing information on New Balance and its capacity to produce the footwear in question.

But slicing into the nuanced details of the information being spread about candidates and where it comes from can be an exhaustive effort.

The Maine GOP complaint came just days after the Republican Governors Association sent an email to media, packaged as a “research memo.” In it were headlines heralding incumbent Gov. Paul LePage’s accomplishments. The message included quotes from stories and headlines in newspapers — 12 references in all, including five from the weekly Lewiston-Auburn-area free newspaper, the Twin City Times.

The articles were composed of news releases from LePage’s communications team, the GOP and even Democrats with headlines that were similar to those suggested by the governor’s staff. Maine Republican Party spokesman David Sorensen says that’s a far cry from “inventing” a newspaper for a television spot.

“There’s no reason at first glance at the [Twin City Times] piece for any researcher to know that it contains copied material from a release,” Sorensen said in an email to the Sun Journal.”The Michaud ad, on the other hand, comes straight from the candidate, not a committee … and clearly involved deliberate deception … putting “State News Service” in Gothic font as if it were a headline of an actual news outlet.

Many papers, including the Sun Journal, publish news releases to provide readers with information they consider of value or interest.

This week, the Twin City Times featured on its cover a picture of LePage hugging an old friend during a GOP rally in Auburn. Inside was the full transcript of the governor’s latest radio address.

The Republican Governors Association message to media didn’t bother to mention that the Twin City Times is owned by LePage’s director of communications, Peter Steele.

To be fair, Steele is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the newspaper. His wife, Laurie Steele, is the official publisher.

The Republican Governors Association’s omission is particularly interesting, given that Republican critics of Maine’s largest newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, are quick to point out that its primary owner, Donald Sussman, is married to Maine’s 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and is a top contributor to Democratic causes and candidates.

Sorensen said the party’s next move would be to ask the television stations airing the Michaud ads to take them down.

Likewise, Ted O’Meara, the campaign manager for independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, chastised Michaud’s use of the fake masthead and headline.

“Like everything else about Mike Michaud’s campaign, they are trying to gloss over his total lack of accomplishments in Congress and his constant ‘evolving’ on core issues that are important to Maine voters,” O’Meara said. “He’s not a leader, never has been, and no amount of 30-second ads are going to make him one.”

Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for Michaud’s camp, said Republicans are increasingly desperate to tear the Democratic candidate down by any means possible. The complaints and antics, Reinholt said, are a distraction from LePage’s failed record on the economy and a litany of other issues that Republicans don’t want to discuss.

In yet another political advertising dispute, the re-election campaign of Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins released a new television ad this week, disputing attack ads launched against her in August by the left-leaning political action committee Americans for Democracy.

The political action committee is spending $300,000 in Maine to help Collins’ Democratic challenger, Shenna Bellows. Its advertisements are critical of Collins for votes she has made to support federal tax cuts for “millionaires and billionaires.” The ads also are critical of votes in opposition to raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 and claim that Collins has opposed legislation that would ensure equal pay for women.

Collins’ campaign has said the advertisements are unfairly parsing her voting record or are simply untrue.

“When you see these false, negative, out-of-state ads, attacking Susan Collins, remember Susan is a champion for Maine’s working families,” the narrator in the new Collins’ spot says.

The spot goes on to call the attacks “laughable, partisan and wrong.”

But as Collins’ new ad began to air, Americans for Democracy were defending their original spots, including new online references to Senate roll-call votes they claim show Collins voted to cut taxes for millionaires. The group also pointed out that it had more than 7,800 supporters in Maine — apparently disputing claims of its out-of-state origins.

The only problem with the group’s claims? One of the bills it cites Collins voting for actually increased taxes on those earning more than $400,000 per year. The measure also increased the federal estate tax from 35 percent to 40 percent. Also voting for the bill? Maine’s Democratic U.S. House members, Pingree and Michaud.

Collins’ campaign spokesman Lance Dutson said Friday that the campaign intended to defend its candidate’s voting record and would continue its work to educate the opposition on how the Senate actually works.

“We’ve got the most far-left organization in the country running ads for what the New York Times blog is calling the most far-left Senate candidate in America,” Dutson said. “It’s part and parcel of the misinformation that’s coming out of the Bellows campaign, and I just don’t think the people of Maine will buy this stuff.”

 


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