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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Giving Till They’re Blue?

The right numbers leave the wrong impression in a Pennsylvania House primary race.


It’s not uncommon for GOP candidates to accuse each other of not being Republican enough. But the fight is ordinarily over issues, such as tax cuts. In Pennsylvania, two House candidates are instead attacking each other for sending money behind enemy lines. The ads they’ve launched provide a good lesson in how politicians can mislead voters even with accurate numbers.

  • Chris Hackett accuses his opponent of having "a long history of supporting liberal Democrats." Actually, the opponent, Dan Meuser, occasionally gives to politicians who are important to his company, but 91 percent of his  personal donations go to Republicans.
  • Meuser fires back that Hackett’s charge is a hypocritical smear, because "80 percent of Hackett’s donations go to Democrats." Actually the percentage is 60 percent. More importantly Hackett gives little to anybody, and nearly all of what he gave to Democrats went to one candidate who was a Chamber of Commerce colleague.

Viewers of these dueling attack ads could think that each candidate is disloyal to his party. The truth is, they are both businessmen who had pragmatic or personal reasons to give to the other side.


Pennsylvanians won’t be punching ballots just for presidential candidates on Tuesday. There are congressional primaries too, and GOP House candidates in Pennsylvania’s 10th district are going after each other just as vigorously as Obama and Clinton are. Dan Meuser, whose company sells electric scooters and lifts for people with disabilities, and Chris Hackett, who runs a recruiting and staffing firm, have spent more than $1.1 million on a barrage of ads, which took a sharp turn for the negative at the beginning of April.

These ads don’t focus on policy positions. Both candidates’ platforms are straight out of the GOP playbook anyway. Instead, each contender is going after the other for bankrolling (gasp) Democrats, including one donation to Republican foe Hillary Clinton. 

 [TET ]

Chris Hackett for Congress Ad: "Democrats"

Hackett: I’m Chris Hackett and I approve this message.

Announcer: Who can we trust to stand up for us? Dan Meuser has a long history of supporting liberal Democrats. Last election, Meuser gave $5,000 to Ed Rendell. Last year, Meuser gave thousands to liberal New York Congressman Charlie Rangel who proposed the largest tax increase in history. And Meuser even had his company give money to Hillary Clinton. Dan Meuser: If he’s willing to bankroll Hillary Clinton, what would he do in Congress? [/TET] 

Splash in the Bucket

Hackett says that Meuser and his company have donated to prominent Democrats in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Senate, including Hillary Clinton. He’s right. The state’s campaign finance database shows a $5,000 contribution by Meuser to Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell in 2006, and the Center for Responsive Politics records a $2,300 donation to Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel in 2007. That’s a total of $7,300 that Meuser contributed personally to Democrats.

But the same records show that Meuser personally donated a total of $41,200 to federal campaigns and $37,430 to state ones, for a total of $78,630. That means that his dalliances with Democrats make up 9 percent of his total personal contributions. And they are not as out of character as they might seem. As the owner of a large Pennsylvania business, Meuser might have reason to be financially friendly to the Pennsylvania governor and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The committee has jurisdiction over Medicare, on which Meuser’s company, Pride Mobility, depends heavily to finance purchases of its products by the over-65 set.

Separately, his company’s political action committee donated $1,000 to Clinton’s Senate campaign in 2005, according to the Federal Election Commission. The PAC made lots of other contributions to Democrats, too – a total of $25,300. That’s 22 percent of the PAC’s total $116,550 in political donations.

It’s not unusual for business PACs to split their giving between political parties, especially when their prosperity depends in part on the federal government. For instance, the Eastman-Kodak PAC made 57 percent of its contributions to Democrats and 43 percent to Republicans in 2008. Even AT&T, the top donor to Republicans, sent 38 percent of its donations to Democrats this year. As PACs go, the percentage of contributions that Meuser’s company has made to Democrats is still quite small.

Meuser and his company PAC are different entities. So when Meuser fires back in his response ad that he "never gave a dime" to Clinton, it’s technically true, but misleading. Compared to the PAC’s total giving, however, the Clinton contribution does amount to small change.

80 Percent of Very Little

Meuser turns things around on Hackett, holding that Hackett has made 80 percent of his donations to Democrats.

That’s close, but not accurate. Counting federal, state and some local donations, we figure that 60 percent of Hackett’s money has gone to Demorats, not 80 percent. And more importantly, it’s 60 percent of a fairly small number. Hackett is not a frequent donor: Pennsylvania state campaign finance records show he made contributions totaling less than $2,500 over the last five years, all to Republicans, and CRP shows only a $2,300 donation – to himself. But local records in Luzerne County, Pa., show that in 2006 Hackett did donate $5,000 to "Friends of Skrepenak and Vonderheid," supporting the campaigns of two Democratic candidates for county commissioner. Hackett told a local blogger that he also donated another $2,000 to Vonderheid’s political efforts.

The catch? Hackett supported Vonderheid’s campaign because Vonderheid was a former colleague of his from the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce, he said. The other catch? Dan Meuser also donated $1,000 to "Friends of Skrepenak and Vonderheid" on the same day that Hackett made his contribution.

[TET ]

Meuser for Congress Ad: "Chris Hackett’s Hypocrisy"

Meuser: I’m Dan Meuser, and I approve this message because the voters deserve to know the truth.

Announcer: Chris Hackett’s hypocrisy has reached new heights. Hackett is running a negative smear campaign while the facts are 80 percent of Hackett’s donations go to Democrats. And, Chris Hackett is simply not telling the truth about Dan Meuser. Dan never gave a dime to Hillary Clinton. In fact, 90 percent of Dan’s contributions go to Republicans. And, Dan has been recognized by national Republican organizations for his efforts. Dan Meuser, a conservative we can trust. [/TET]

In his ad, Hackett used dollar figures to make it sound like Meuser had been a virtual Democratic sugar daddy, even though the money amounted to little compared with his total contributions. Meuser, in turn, used a percentage figure to make Hackett appear to be a Democrat in GOP duds, when Hackett’s total giving is modest and all his Democratic dollars went to an old colleague who was running for county commissioner – and who received money from Meuser, as well. In neither case are the donations as significant or as ideologically driven as the candidates imply.

Certainly both sets of donations are a bit out of the ordinary. Massie Ritsch at CRP told FactCheck.org that "most campaign contributors are very partisan; they rarely cross over and give money in any significant proportion to the other side." We leave it to our readers, and to the Republican voters in the 10th congressional district, to say how much money, if any, Republicans should give to Democratic candidates. Our point here is that these ads juggle the statistics and don’t necessarily reflect any liberal motivation by either candidate. Given their similar, Republican rank-and-file positions on illegal immigration, abortion, education, taxes, gay marriage and Iraq, perhaps these two couldn’t find anything else to fight about.

– by Jess Henig


The Frontrunner. "PA10: GOP Rivals Spend Over $1 Million on TV Ads," 14 Apr. 2008.