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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cute Puppy or Red Herring?

Maryland Republican Michael Steele misleads, equating legal campaign contributions with lobbyist gifts.


In an ad featuring a Boston terrier at his side, GOP candidate Michael Steele accuses Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin of taking “money from special interests” and then voting against importing cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. Steele says he wants to “ban gifts from special interests.” The ad misleads viewers by conflating campaign contributions (Cardin’s “money from special interests”) with lobbyists’ gifts (“gifts from special interests”) that Steele says he wants to ban. The ad makes it appear as if Steele has not received contributions from special interest groups when, in fact, he has.

The spot also accuses Cardin of voting against bills that would have allowed cheaper medicines to be imported from Canada. It’s true Cardin has voted against such measures in the past, although one of the bills the Steele campaign accuses Cardin of voting against would only have allowed cheaper imports if the Secretary of Health and Human Services gave his approval, which he had already refused to do.

Steele also fails to mention his party affiliation in any of his ads. A DSCC ad attacking Steele, which we find to be accurate, leaves no doubt that he is a Republican.


Steele’s ad appeared on Maryland airwaves on September 27, in response to a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad that claimed Steele “loves George W. Bush.” While we take no issue with the factual content of the DSCC ad, we find the Republican candidate’s most recent ad to be misleading.

Lobbyist Gift or Campaign Contribution?

Michael Steele Ad:
“Real Differences” 

Steele: You knew they were coming – nasty ads from the Washington crowd.

(On Screen: Puppy growls.)

Steele: We don’t think much of that. I think you deserve straight talk about some real differences. I support cheaper medicine from Canada. Congressman Cardin took money from drug companies and voted against cheaper medicine. Ben Cardin’s taken money from special interests for twenty years. I want to ban gifts from special interests. Want more of the same?  I’m not your candidate. But if you’re ready for change then I’m your man. I’m Michael Steele and this is my message.

Continuing with the theme from a previous ad that he “likes puppies,” Steele stands next to a growling Boston terrier and says Cardin, has “taken money from special interests for twenty years.” Then Steele says he wants to “ban gifts from special interests.” If you listen carefully Steele doesn’t accuse Cardin of taking gifts, instead he says Cardin has taken money from special interests. “Money” equals legal campaign contributions.”Gifts,” in the context of Capitol Hill, are things like trips and lavish meals. Steele doesn’t explicitly say that “money from special interests” is the same as “gifts from special interests,” but the implication is clear. According to his Web site, Steele wants to “eliminate any meals, drinks or gifts (including sporting event tickets or tickets of any amount) from lobbyists to members of Congress and Congressional staff.” But the sourcing provided by the Steele campaign for this ad fails to list any gifts to Cardin’s campaign from special interests, instead it lists only campaign contributions. A look at both campaigns’ FEC filings show that both Steele and Cardin have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical PACs among other interest groups.

Drugs from Canada

Steele says he supports “cheaper medicines from Canada” and accuses Cardin of voting against importing such medications. He implies Cardin’s vote was influenced by campaign contributions from special interests even though, as we noted earlier, both Steele and Cardin have received money from pharmaceutical PACs.

To support his claim, Steele’s campaign cites three votes. One of them is Cardin’s vote against the 2003 Medicare overhaul legislation. However, according to a 2003 CQ report, the Medicare bill, which Steele has said he supports, effectively prevented the importation of cheaper drugs from abroad. The bill placed the responsibility of approving cheaper drug imports in the hands of the Secretary of Health and Human Services rather than with Congress, even though Tommy Thompson, the Secretary at the time, had already established he would not allow it:

CQ Weekly: The Medicare bill technically allows drugs to be imported from Canada, provided the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) certifies that the practice is safe. HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson has said such a guarantee is not possible.

The Secretary’s refusal to approve drug imports was not news at the time. In 2001 HHS issued a press release outlining the Department’s position on drug re-importation – the importation of U.S.-manufactured drugs from select foreign countries. In a letter to Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, Thompson wrote:

HHS: I believe very strongly that seniors should have access to affordable prescription drugs…However, I do not believe we should sacrifice public safety for uncertain and speculative cost savings…Opening our borders as required under this [2001 drug reimportation] program would increase the likelihood that the shelves of pharmacies in towns and communities across the nation would include counterfeit drugs, cheap foreign copies of FDA-approved drugs, expired drugs, contaminated drugs, and drugs stored under inappropriate and unsafe conditions.

Cardin did vote against two measures that clearly would have allowed for the importation of drugs from Canada. In 2003 Cardin joined 34 Democrats and 142 Republicans in voting against a Democrat-sponsored motion to include language in the fiscal 2004 omnibus appropriations bill allowing for the reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada. The motion passed 237-176, but the language was eventually replaced by the regulation included in the Medicare overhaul. Cardin also voted against a bill introduced by Republican Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota that would have called on the Food and Drug Administration to create a program that would allow FDA-approved drugs from FDA-approved sites in select countries to be imported to the United States. The bill passed in the House with 141 Republicans and 45 Democrats voting against, but died in the Senate.

Where Does Steele Stand?


(On Screen: Inset footage of Steele holding puppy.)

Announcer: It’s nice that Michael Steele likes puppies. But he’s running for the United States Senate, and it’s important to know where he stands on the issues.

(On Screen: A picture of Michael Steele standing next to George W. Bush.)

Announcer: Michael Steele is a long-time supporter of George Bush. He supports the War in Iraq. Supported Bush’s veto of embryonic stem cell research. And he’s against a woman’s right to choose. Michael Steele: he likes puppies, but he loves George Bush. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

Steele’s advertisement is the latest in a volley of ads between the candidate and the DSCC. Steele does not mention that he is a Republican in any of his ads; the majority of Maryland voters are Democrats.

Steele has said in his ads, that he is against last-minute pork-barrel spending amendments, against gifts from lobbyists and for importing drugs from Canada. But lest he be mistaken for a Democrat, the DSCC highlighted his more Republican positions in a Sept. 27 ad, citing sources that showed Steele supports keeping troops in Iraq without a timetable for departure, and noting that in 2004 he said he supported the President’s Medicare prescription drug plan – a bill most Democrats didn’t back. Also, Steele has said he is against “any effort that would result in the destruction of a human embryo,” meaning he is against current embryonic stem cell research. Steele is in favor of using adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood cells only. In 2002, The Baltimore Sun reported that “Steele says he is staunchly opposed to abortion,” and in 2006 the National Right to Life identified Steele as “pro-life.” Steele’s party affiliation, while not clear in his ads, will be clear on the ballot.



Watch DSCC Ad: “Dogs”

Watch Michael Steele Ad: “Real Differences”


Kady, Martin II. “Agriculture: Country-of-Origin Food Labeling Law Would Be Put on Hold Through Fiscal ’06,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly. 25 November 2003.

Wagner, John and Matthew Mosk. “Stem Cell Issue Draws Hopefuls; Candidates Compete to Show Off Their Support for Technology,” The Washington Post. 21 July 2006.

Nitkin, David and Howard Libit. “Ehrlich declares ‘opportunity ticket’ with party chief; Michael Steele in bid for lieutenant governor, never held elected office; emphasizes modest roots; Election 2002,” The Baltimore Sun. 2 July 2002.

“Pro-life Victories; National Right to Life,” National Right to Life News. 1 Aug 2006.