A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

AFSCME’s Misleading Tax Attack

Union ad misrepresents a GOP House candidate's position on taxes.


AFSCME, the big labor union, is running a misleading ad attacking one of the GOP’s premier House candidates. In an attempt to protect a vulnerable freshman Democrat, Rep. John Boccieri of Ohio, AFSCME badly misrepresents his Republican challenger’s stance on taxation.

AFSCME’s ad says Republican challenger Jim Renacci "supports a 23 percent national sales tax," and then shows 10 men and women reacting by calling it a bad idea and an unacceptable threat to a struggling middle class.

It’s true enough that Renacci has voiced support for the so-called "FairTax" proposal, which is billed by supporters as a 23 percent tax on sales. What the ad fails to mention is that the FairTax would replace the federal income tax and abolish the Internal Revenue Service, according to its supporters.

The union’s ad is part of a whopping $750,000 independent expenditure, one of the largest so far this year in a House race.


Renacci is campaigning to unseat freshman Boccieri in Ohio’s 16th congressional district, which includes Canton and some suburbs of Cleveland. The ad began running Aug. 9 and is sponsored by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. According to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission, AFSCME is spending $750,000 on this ad, titled "Totally Unacceptable," and one other ad, which has yet to appear, titled "Deadbeat."

AFSCME’s $750,000 effort is one of the largest independent efforts so far this year. But Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political TV ads around the country, says it’s just a taste of things to come. "This will be one of many big buys you will see from groups this year," Tracey said in an e-mail to FactCheck.org. "In some cases individual groups could out-spend candidates, and collectively groups will be the dominate buyer in some of the more hotly contested races this year."


[TET ]

AFSCME Ad: "Totally Unacceptable"

Announcer: Jim Renacci supports a 23 percent national sales tax. What do you think?

Unidentified Woman #1: Now that’s a bad idea.

Unidentified Woman #2: No. No. No. No. It doesn’t need to be that high.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Laughing) ] I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Unidentified Woman #4: I would just be totally disgusted.

Unidentified Man #1: Everybody’s struggling with the gas.

Unidentified Woman #5: Have a job or don’t have a job — you’re still struggling.

Unidentified Woman #6: It’s hard enough for us to go in the stores and buy food now.

Unidentified Man #2: I think that would totally destroy what’s left of the middle class.

Unidentified Man #3: He’s definitely not thinking about the average person.

Unidentified Man #4: Totally unacceptable.

Announcer: AFSCME is responsible for the content of this advertising.

The words "Renacci’s 23% Sales Tax" appear on screen throughout the ad as 10 men and women voice disapproval of the idea, saying variously, "bad idea … disgusted … totally unacceptable." One says: "It’s hard enough for us to go in the stores and buy food now."

It’s true that Renacci has voiced support for the so-called "FairTax" proposal, which is a broad-based national sales tax — but only as a replacement for the federal income tax. His campaign website states:

Renacci website: I could only potentially support such a concept if the tax would serve as a replacement to the income tax, not an addition to it. I strongly oppose any effort to add any consumption tax or sales tax to the tax code if it would exist in addition to an income tax.

Renacci issued a statement calling the AFSCME ad "grossly inaccurate" and a "smear." We wouldn’t go quite that far, but we do find it to be quite misleading.

This is the second time we’ve seen the Democratic side misrepresenting the stance of a Republican supporting the FairTax. Back in April, we noted that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used the same line in a TV spot attacking GOP House candidate Tim Burns, in the special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Pennsylvania veteran congressman John Murtha.

What we said then about the DCCC and Burns goes just as well for the AFSCME ad and Renacci, and we’ll say it again:

[T]his ad is quite misleading because it fails to mention that the FairTax proposal would also repeal the federal income tax entirely and do away with the Internal Revenue Service. It would also eliminate gift, estate, capital gains, alternative minimum, Social Security, Medicare and self-employment taxes. But anyone viewing [AFSCME’s] ad could easily conclude that [Renacci] favored slapping a 23 percent sales tax on top of all existing taxes, which is not true.

We take no position on whether the FairTax is a good idea or a bad idea. In the past we’ve criticized its proponents for making some serious misrepresentations. For one thing, a bipartisan Advisory Panel on Tax Reform calculated that the tax would need to be set at 34 percent of retail prices — not 23 percent — to bring in enough revenue to replace other federal taxes.

Republicans have targeted Boccieri for defeat. He is one of 31 identified by the National Republican Congressional Committee as a "wave baby" — a Democrat who "caught the pro-Democrat wave" and was elected with less than 55 percent of the vote. Boccieri won in 2008 with 54 percent of the vote — giving Democrats their first victory in Ohio’s 16th congressional district in 58 years. For its part, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has labeled Boccieri a "frontline member." The DCCC’s "Frontline Program" provides vulnerable Democrats with an "added boost," as DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen puts it.

AFSCME’s buy is a big one. Tracey said CMAG’s estimates show the largest amount of money spent to buy air time for a single political ad this year is $350,000. CMAG is a unit of Kantar Media.

In another sign of what is to come, this ad is notable for how it was funded. The $750,000 came from a new committee AFSCME created three months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that labor unions and corporations can tap their union or corporate treasuries to spend unlimited amounts of money on political activity. AFSCME has been one of the first to take advantage of that ruling.

The new committee — American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees AFL-CIO — has spent nearly $3 million on independent expenditures, including $2 million to attempt to defeat Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas in the Democratic primary. It is separate from the union’s longtime political action committee, AFSCME People, which is restricted by law to accepting no more than $5,000 per person per year in contributions.

— by Brooks Jackson and Eugene Kiely


American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “SCHEDULE 5-E; ITEMIZED INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURES; FILING FEC-486611.” Report to the Federal Election Commission. Accessed 12 Aug 2010.

Slepian, James. “READY, FIRE, AIM: UNION BOSSES MISFIRE WITH BOGUS TAX HIKE CLAIM.” Press release, Jim Renacci for Congress. 10 Aug 2010.

Tracey, Evan. Campaign Media Analysis Group.Exchange of emails with FactCheck.org. 12 Aug 2010.

National Republican Congressional Committee. "2010 NRCC Campaign Battle Plan." Accessed 12 Aug 2010.

The New York Times. Ohio election results. 9 Dec 2008, accessed 12 Aug 2010.

 "Van Hollen Announces 2009-2010 Frontline Program Leaders & Frontline Members." Press release. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 23 Feb 2009.

Khimm, Suzy. "The Citizens United Effect." Mother Jones. 7 Jun 2010.

Taggart, Jeffrey, AFSCME Accounting. "FEC Form 5N 4/1/2010-4/14/2010." Letter to Federal Election Commission. 16 Apr 2010, accessed 12 Aug 2010.

Federal Election Commission. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees AFL-CIO campaign finance reports. Accessed 12 Aug 2010.

Federal Election Commission. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees People campaign finance reports. Accessed 12 Aug 2010.