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Dems Ignore Blowback Risks in Harsh Rhetoric Barrage

Dems Ignore Blowback Risks in Harsh Rhetoric Barrage

By Scott Conroy - September 5, 2014

It's easy to forget now, but there once was a time when the Democratic Party was accustomed to chastising itself over some candidates' timidity. 

But with two months until the midterm elections, visions of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry failing to go on the offensive amid Republican attacks are just distant memories.  

This year, the bigger concern for Democrats appears to be that some of their own histrionic broadsides against GOP opponents will trigger a voter backlash. 

In three key midterm races over the last few days, Democrats have launched the kind of invective that might have made Lee Atwater blush.    

First, it was Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, who began airing a dramatically narrated ad that accused Republican Tom Cotton of being soft on combating the spread of the Ebola virus. 

For good measure, the Pryor spot also insinuated that Cotton opposes children’s hospitals.  

Not to be outdone, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich on Friday launched his own memorable TV spot, which sought to connect Republican Dan Sullivan to an administrative mishap in the state’s judicial system that led to a convicted felon being released from prison. The felon in question now stands accused of committing a grisly double-murder after his release, but fact-check organizations criticized Begich’s insinuation that Sullivan had anything to do with the case.  

Finally, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz drew additional scrutiny to the closely watched Wisconsin governor’s race between Republican incumbent Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke when she said that Walker “has given women the back of his hand.” 

As if that image didn’t go far enough, Wasserman Schultz added that Tea Party extremists are “grabbing us by the hair and pulling us back.” 

The perception that Wasserman Schultz had been wrong to invoke violence against women to make a political point was clear almost immediately after her comments were published. Burke’s press secretary told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "That's not the type of language that Mary Burke would use, or has used, to point out the clear differences in this contest.” 

Back in Alaska, Begich pulled his provocative ad after the victims’ family protested its use, but he did so only after his campaign had spent several days in a fruitless back-and-forth with the Sullivan camp over the ad’s propriety.  

In the meantime, national Republicans are seizing upon these recent incidents, eager to portray them as emblematic of a sinking Democratic ship heading into midterm waters.  

“Democrats are clearly desperate,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski. “They are reading the same polling we are that shows wide disapproval of Obama and his policies that all of these Democrat candidates have spent years pushing.” 

The extent to which the Democrats involved regret their aggressively negative campaigning remains unclear.  

Though he pulled his ad, Begich did not expressed personal remorse for airing it, and Wasserman Schulz has not apologized for her comments about Walker.  

Pryor, meanwhile, remains completely unbowed.  

After his Ebola ad sparked a backlash in the media, the Arkansas Democrat took the additional step of calling a press conference to defend it, holding up the 30-second TV spot as reflecting the “sharp contrast” between himself and his opponent.  

According to Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, these hard-hitting tactics reveal a party eager to encourage its voters to pay attention as the campaign’s homestretch approaches -- not a party that is on the ropes.  

“I think what Democrats are trying to do is call attention to an election with an electorate that is really not tuned in at the moment but is about to be,” Cardona said. “We all know Labor Day is the turning point where everyone starts to focus on what’s going on.” 

If the recent attacks are indeed a sign of desperation, as Republicans counter, the Democratic candidates who launched them are somewhat unlikely suspects.  

Though most election forecasts have been giving the GOP a better than even chance of winning control of the Senate in November, Begich and Pryor have for months been praised for running strong races amid particularly challenging circumstances.  

In the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls, Begich leads Sullivan by 4.6 percentage points in deep-red Alaska, and Pryor trails Cotton by just 1.7 percentage points in Arkansas -- a state that President Obama lost to Mitt Romney by a 24-point margin in 2012.  

RealClearPolitics senior elections analyst Sean Trende warned against reading too much into the Democrats’ recent gambit -- for the time being, at least.  

“When you see these sorts or over-the-top ads being run, it is frequently a sign of panic,” Trende said. “With that said, I don’t know that we have enough evidence here to draw firm conclusions. I think Pryor might well be employing a ‘kitchen sink’ approach, but Begich and Burke seem to be doing relatively well in the polls. In those cases, it might just be a boneheaded move by Begich’s team, and a stupid comment by [Wasserman Schultz].”

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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