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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bay State Battle

Ads in race for Kennedy seat leave some false impressions.


In the Massachusetts special election campaign for the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy, the conservative American Future Fund and Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley’s campaign are on the air with misleading attack ads.

• AFF’s ad uses a Coakley quote, “We need to get taxes up,” to portray her as a tax-hiker. But Coakley says she was referring to tax receipts that come with boosting employment – and her words were in the context of getting people back to work.

• Coakley’s ad raises an amendment introduced in the state Senate by her opponent, Scott Brown, that would have allowed hospital personnel to refuse to give emergency contraception to rape victims based on their religious beliefs. But it doesn’t mention that when the amendment failed, Brown voted for the bill requiring the contraception to be provided anyway.


The battle between Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Sen. Scott Brown is being closely watched as a possible indicator of how Democrats will fare in the midterm election this year.

 Tax Attack

The American Future Fund, a conservative 501(c)(4), led off with an ad produced, according to The Boston Globe, by Larry McCarthy, who also produced the infamous Wilie Horton ad that attacked Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign.


[TET ]

American Future Fund Ad: "Issues"

Narrator: Issues comparison: Scott Brown supports an across-the-board tax cut. Martha Coakley says, quote, "We need to get taxes up." Brown has pledged not to raise taxes. Coakley says she will. Brown opposed the $2 trillion spending spree that’s putting us deeper in debt. Coakley supports massive new spending and the tax increases to pay for it. Call Martha Coakley and tell her we can’t afford more taxes.

American Future Fund is responsible for the content of this ad.


AFF’s attack on Coakley is based on the allegation that she will raise taxes. Exhibit A in its case, however, doesn’t hold up. According to the ad, "Coakley says, quote, ‘We need to get taxes up.’ " Coakley, in a debate with other Democratic primary candidates at Suffolk University Law School on Nov. 30, did speak those words in a much lengthier response to a student’s question about the deficit. But Coakley says she was referring to getting tax revenues up through putting people back to work, not to raising tax rates or imposing new levies. Here’s what she said (about 23 minutes into the video):

Coakley, Nov. 30, 2009: It’s unfair that Wall Street went basically unself-regulating for too many years. Washington was asleep at the switch in many respects, if they knew where the switch was. … But we do need to get out of this recession, also. And that requires, I think, looking at a couple of things. There’s no magic bullet to this. We need to get people back to work, we need to get taxes up, and we’ll start to chip away at that deficit, because individuals and the country – my colleague in California, Jerry Brown, said, "We’ve all been spending too much money we didn’t have on stuff we didn’t need."

According to a Coakley campaign spokesman, Corey Welford, “Martha was referencing the need to get people back to work and tax revenues that would come with increased employment.” The Boston Globe sided with Coakley on this, saying in a news story that her words were being taken out of context and that she actually "seemed to suggest that the economy needed to improve so that tax collections would rise."

Not being clairvoyant, we can’t say what Coakley was thinking when she spoke. But it’s a fact that she began her sentence with the subject of jobs – "We need to get people back to work" – and that her statement that "we need to get taxes up" followed immediately and was in that context.

When controversy about the ad’s use of the Coakley quote erupted, Brown said in a statement, "I wish this weren’t happening." But he didn’t call for the ad to be taken down. And his own campaign has exploited the very same quote in a Web ad that remains on his site. 

The Empathy Card

Coakley’s campaign, in an ad released this week, describes Brown as someone who would march in step with "Washington Republicans," portraying him as anti-government, pro-business and, well, downright heartless. 

[TET ]

Martha Coakley for Senate Ad: "Lockstep Republican"

Coakley: I’m Martha Coakley and I approve this message.

Narrator: Who is Scott Brown, really?

A Republican. In lockstep with Washington Republicans. He’ll block tougher oversight of Wall Street. Give more tax breaks to the wealthiest. Oppose new prescription coverage for millions of seniors. (On screen: Block Wall Street oversight. More tax breaks for the wealthy. No new prescription drug care).

Brown even favors letting hospitals deny emergency contraception to rape victims. (On screen: Deny rape victims care.) He lacks understanding and seriousness. In times like these, we can’t afford a Republican like Scott Brown.


Brown has said that he’s not in favor of new regulation of the financial markets, preferring to let "private enterprise try to get us out of this mess." He has also said he supports a 15 percent across the board tax cut, which would certainly include "the wealthiest" but would flow to people at all income levels. As for prescription drug coverage, Brown has introduced a bill in the state Senate that would allow Massachusetts residents to purchase more limited insurance coverage than the state now requires; prescription drug coverage, for example, would not be mandated. The provision doesn’t apply to seniors more than any other group, though the ad implies otherwise.

Still, the ad is basically on track, factually, until we come to a claim that "Brown even favors letting hospitals deny emergency contraception to rape victims." It’s true that in 2005, when the Massachusetts state Legislature was considering a bill to require hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims, Brown introduced an amendment that would have let doctors and nurses opt out based on "a sincerely held religious belief" and refer patients elsewhere. It was similar to "conscience" provisions in state and federal legislation that would avoid forcing Catholic hospitals to provide abortion or contraception against the teachings of the church. Here’s the language:

Brown amendment, April 2005: Nothing in this section shall impose any requirements upon any employee, physician or nurse of any facility to the extent that administering the contraception conflicts with a sincerely held religious belief. In determining whether an employee, physician or nurse of any facility has a sincerely held religious belief administering the contraception, the conflict shall be known and disclosed to said facility and on record at said facility.

If it is deemed that said employee, physician or nurse of any facility has a sincerely held religious conflict administering the contraception, then said treating facility shall have in place a validated referral procedure policy for referring patients for administration of the emergency contraception that will administer the emergency contraception, which may include a contract with another facility. The referrals shall be made at no additional cost to the patient.

The amendment failed. But what the ad doesn’t mention is that Brown voted for the underlying bill anyway, even after the Republican governor vetoed it.

The most misleading part of the ad, though, is not what the narrator says, but what appears on screen. As the contraception amendment is mentioned, viewers see the words, "Deny rape victims care." Emergency contraception is certainly a type of care. But the language on screen implies that Brown would support denial of even, say, treatment of injuries sustained in a rape.  

That’s far from the truth. The bill, which became part of the Massachusetts state code’s section on public health, required that rape victims be provided with accurate information about emergency contraception and that they be offered it. Brown voted for the bill after unsuccessfully trying to carve out a religion exception. And there is nothing in the record that we are aware of to suggest that Brown ever supported denying any other type of care to victims of sexual assault.

Voters go to the polls on Tuesday. 

— by Viveca Novak


Balz, Dan and Chris Cillizza. "In Massachusetts, Republican Brown steps up campaign for Kennedy’s Senate seat." The Washington Post. 13 Jan 2010.

Senate Democratic Primary Debate, sponsored by Suffolk University and the Boston Herald. 30 Nov 2009.

Viser, Matt. "Coakley basks in political blessings." The Boston Globe. 8 Jan 2010.

Oakes, Bob. "Sen. Scott Brown: ‘I’m Up Against The Machine.’" Interview with Scott Brown. 14 Sep 2009.

Murphy, Matt. "Coakley, Brown sharply divided on economic fixes." Lowell Sun. 8 Jan 2009.

Brown, Scott. "An Act Reducing the Cost of Health Insurance." Bill filed in Massachusetts Senate 28 Dec 2009.

LeBlanc, Steve. "Coakley, Brown sharply divided on economic fixes." The Associated Press. 28 Dec 2009.

Uncorrected Proof of the Journal of the [Massachusetts] Senate.16 June 2005.