A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Test Market for Spin

Fact-twisting TV ads flood a three-way special House race in upstate New York.


Summary

A May 24 special election to fill a vacant House seat in upstate New York has become a national test market for distorted political claims. It offers a preview of tactics that may be repeated in next year’s national elections.

  • Democrats are claiming the Republican candidate would “essentially end Medicare.” But the GOP budget plan she endorsed would continue the present system indefinitely for those now age 55 and older, and subsidize the purchase of private insurance for those who go on Medicare after 2022.
  • The Republican candidate counters by falsely accusing her Democratic opponent of saying she would “cut Social Security and Medicare.” She didn’t say that. All she said was that tax increases should be “on the table” along with budget cuts for entitlements.
  • Both Democrats and Republicans are attacking a wealthy industrialist running on the Tea Party line. Democrats claim he’d cut Social Security benefits for seniors, misrepresenting a comment he made five years earlier. Republicans attack him as a puppet of Nancy Pelosi. Actually, he’s a gun-owning life member of the National Rifle Association.
  • The Tea Party candidate claims to be an “independent” but has said he’d support Republican John Boehner for speaker.
  • Democrats also claim the Republican budget plan “increases the national debt by $8 trillion” over 10 years. Actually, the GOP plan calls for $4.5 trillion less debt than projected under President Obama’s budget.

Analysis

New York’s 26th congressional district takes in suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester and points in between. The former incumbent, Republican Rep. Christopher Lee, resigned in February. A married man, Lee was caught sending a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he had met on craigslist, and claiming to be a lobbyist and “a very fit fun classy guy.” Now the district is again attracting national attention.

The GOP candidate is state lawmaker Jane Corwin, who was at first heavily favored to win in this strongly Republican district, where 52 percent voted for John McCain for president in 2008. But her support has been drained somewhat by the presence of a wealthy candidate, Jack Davis, who has spent $1.7 million of his own money running as a Tea Party candidate. That has improved the chances for the Democratic candidate, Kathy Hochul, the Erie County Clerk.

Political parties and outside groups have poured money into the race, which is being touted as the first voter test of the budget priorities of the new GOP majority in the House. When House Speaker John Boehner visited the district recently, he said Democrats are “hoping they can steal this election” to continue “more taxes and higher spending.” He added: “We’ve got a chance to tell Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama that we want a different agenda.”

But as often happens when the stakes are high, both sides are taking liberties with the facts in their TV spots.

Would Corwin ‘End Medicare’?

Corwin has said she would have voted for the GOP budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and adopted by the House on April 15, with Democrats unanimously opposed. Democrats are claiming this is tantamount to doing away with Medicare — but that’s far from the truth.

For example, a new ad released May 16 by the House Majority PAC — a new Democratic “super PAC” — shows video of white-haired senior citizens and claims that the GOP budget plan supported by Corwin “would essentially end Medicare” and cause “sacrifice” for seniors.

[TET ]

House Majority PAC Ad: “NY-26”

Jane Corwin: We can’t keep piling on debt for future generations.

Announcer: But the budget Corwin supports actually increases the national debt by 8 trillion dollars over 10 years. While Corwin’s plan would “essentially end Medicare,” it increases the debt by giving tax breaks to big oil and millionaires. Seniors sacrifice, the wealthy gain, our debt skyrockets. Jane Corwin. That’s not a plan. That’s a sham.
House Majority PAC is responsible for the content of this advertising.[/TET]

Earlier, an ad released May 12 by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claimed that the budget resolution Corwin supports “essentially ends Medicare” and amounts to “cutting benefits for seniors.”

[TET ]

DCCC Ad:
“Jack Davis and Jane Corwin: Cutting Benefits”

Announcer: You’ve earned it. Worked your whole life for it. Unfortunately, Jack Davis says Social Security benefits may have to be adjusted down. Worse, Jane Corwin supports a budget that essentially ends Medicare. Instead of balancing the budget the right way, Davis and Corwin want tax breaks for corporations while cutting benefits for seniors. We just can’t afford Jack Davis or Jane Corwin.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.[/TET]

The truth is that the plan would continue Medicare just as it is for anyone who is now receiving it (like those pictured) — and also for anyone who will begin receiving Medicare during the next decade. The program would continue in its present form — indefinitely — for all those beneficiaries.

In 2022, Medicare would be restructured for new beneficiaries. They would buy private insurance with the help of Medicare subsidies. Those who qualified for traditional Medicare before 2022 would have the option of switching to the new “premium support” system, but would not be required to do so if they wanted to stay covered by the present system.

The phrase “essentially ends Medicare” is correctly quoted from an April 4 Wall Street Journal report that is cited on screen. And it’s true that the present system would gradually be replaced by the new system as older beneficiaries die, so the plan would eventually end Medicare — as we know it now.

But that wouldn’t affect the seniors shown in these ads. Even in 2030, more than half of all Medicare beneficiaries would still be under traditional Medicare and 45 percent would be covered by the proposed “premium support” system, according to an April 5 analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. (See Table 3, page 17.) CBO projects that it would be 2050 before 93 percent are covered by the new system.

Those now under age 55 have reason to question the Ryan plan, which CBO says would pay less of their medical expenses than the traditional system. “Under the proposal, most elderly people would pay more for their health care than they would pay under the current Medicare system,” CBO says. It figures that in 2030 a typical 65-year-old with average health spending would be paying 68 percent of his or her total medical costs. That’s more than double the 25 percent or 30 percent projected if the current system remains.

Furthermore, Ryan’s plan would increase the age at which future seniors qualify for Medicare. The age would increase by two months every year, starting in 2022. So by 2033, seniors would have to be 67 years old to qualify.

It would be accurate to say the plan continues Medicare for those who are getting it now or who will begin to receive it over the decade. After that, it would convert Medicare to a less generous new model for people who are now young or middle aged.

Increases National Debt?

We also find the House Majority PAC ad to be misleading when it says: “The budget Corwin supports actually increases the national debt by $8 trillion over 10 years.” In truth, Ryan’s budget plan (Table S-6) actually calls for $4.5 trillion less debt at the end of the decade than the Congressional Budget Office projects under President Obama’s budget. It’s true that total federal debt would still rise by $8.1 trillion under Ryan’s budget by 2021, but it would rise by $12.6 trillion under Obama’s plan, according to CBO.

Also, we quibble with the Majority Pac ad’s claim that the Ryan plan that Corwin supported is “giving tax breaks to big oil and millionaires.” The truth is the tax breaks for big oil companies already exist. Corwin would continue them, while Democrats propose repealing them. And defending current tax breaks is not the same thing as “giving” new ones, a distinction blurred by the ad’s wording.

As for Ryan’s plan giving tax breaks to “millionaires,” Ryan’s plan would lower the top individual tax rate to 25 percent, it’s true. And that would undoubtedly benefit wealthy people, who now pay rates up to 35 percent. But it would also benefit plenty of others. Those who are married and filing jointly will pay rates higher than 25 percent on any adjusted gross income over $139,350 earned this year. For singles, Ryan’s plan would benefit those making more than $83,600.

Social Security ‘Adjusted’?

The DCCC ad also takes a dishonest swipe at Tea Party candidate Davis, distorting a snippet of a radio interview he gave more than five years ago. The ad claims that “unfortunately, Jack Davis said Social Security benefits may have to be adjusted down.” On screen, it cites as its authority for this a Buffalo News story from Nov. 5, 2006, when Davis was running for the same seat (as a Democrat). But what that story actually said is that Davis’ opponent was misrepresenting his position by using that very same partial quote. The News said both candidates were using “weapons of mass distortion” against each other, and that Davis’ opponent “isn’t playing it straight on Social Security.” Davis was talking about adjusting benefits only for future generations of retirees, not for current retirees like the seniors pictured in the ad.

Buffalo News, Nov 5, 2006: Using snippets of Davis radio interviews, a Reynolds ad makes it seem as if Davis wants to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age.

But transcripts of the shows indicate something different. Asked about cutting benefits, Davis said he would consider it, but “not for present people and people that are gonna retire in the next couple years. But [benefits] may have to be adjusted down.”

Moreover, transcripts of the interviews indicate that Davis was discussing steps that might have to be taken if Social Security finds itself facing what he called “a serious problem.”

Corwin’s False ‘Truth’

Republican candidate Corwin released an ad on May 15 called “Truth,” which falsely characterized the position of Democrat Kathy Hochul on both Medicare and Social Security.

[TET ]

Jane Corwin Ad:
“Truth”

Announcer: Kathy Hochul; a false campaign about Jane Corwin’s position on Medicare, when the truth is it’s Hochul who says she would cut Medicare and Social Security.

Hochul: Everything should be on the table: Entitlements, defense spending, but also revenues.

Announcer: Kathy Hochul. Cuts to Medicare. Cuts to Social Security. And higher taxes.

Corwin: I’m Jane Corwin, and I approve this message. I’ll fight to save Medicare from bankruptcy, and I’ll never let career politicians cut Social Security. You can count on that.[/TET]

A narrator accuses Hochul of running “a false campaign” against Corwin’s position on Medicare, and adds: “[T]he truth is it’s Hochul who says she would cut Social Security and Medicare.” In fact, Hochul said no such thing — as the ad itself reveals.

Hochul is shown during a May 12 candidate debate saying: “Everything should be on the table; entitlements, defense spending, but also revenues.” It’s true that Social Security and Medicare are by far the largest federal entitlement programs, but saying those should be “on the table” is saying that they are up for negotiation, not that they ought to be cut. And Republican Corwin also said, during the same debate: “I believe it’s disingenuous to say everything’s on the table but don’t touch Medicare and don’t touch other programs.”

It would be accurate to say that Hochul indicated a willingness to entertain cuts in entitlements if increases in taxes are also part of the package to cut the deficit. But the approach taken by the Republican plan Corwin supports requires even deeper cuts to achieve the same deficit reduction, without any increase in taxes.

Attacking Davis

Republicans, concerned about the inroads Davis has made, are attacking his credentials as a budget-slashing Tea Party candidate. A May 16 ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee depicts him as a puppet of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

[TET ]
NRCC Ad:
“Strings Attached”

Announcer: Meet Jack Davis. He claims he had a hand in creating Nancy Pelosi’s Democrat majority. And meet Kathy Hochul, who said about Pelosi:

Hochul: She’s done a great job for this country.

Announcer: Great job? Pelosi pushed through the failed stimulus that created green jobs in China, while unemployment soared in Western New York. Jack and Kathy can’t fight for us. They come with strings attached.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.[/TET]

Davis is also under attack by American Crossroads, a Republican “super PAC.” The group reported to the Federal Election Commission that it is spending more than $300,000 on this TV spot depicting Davis as a Democrat who is trying to “buy” a House seat.

[TET ]

American Crossroads TV Ad:
“Another”

Narrator: It’s spring and millionaire, career-candidate Jack Davis is trying to buy another office — saying one thing, doing another. This time Jack’s pretending to be a conservative, but he ran as a Democrat and supported massive tax increases. Jack claims he’s for American jobs, but in the past, he invested his millions in companies that shipped jobs overseas. His campaign even broke election laws. You can’t trust, Jack.
American Crossroads is responsible for the content of this advertising.[/TET]

Here the Republicans have a point. Davis is a quirky industrialist who spent more than $5 million of his own money running for this same seat — as a Democrat — in 2004, 2006 and 2008. And just as this NRCC ad says, Davis did claim in 2006 that he had a hand in making Pelosi speaker, despite his own defeat that year. He told the Buffalo News that the $2.25 million he spent running against the Republican incumbent forced the party to divert millions of dollars and hundreds of volunteers from other GOP races.

This time Davis declared himself a Republican when he created his campaign committee and sought the Republican nomination. But he was rejected by local party officials, who endorsed Corwin instead. Davis then collected enough signatures locally to run on the Tea Party ballot line, but that’s been called a “fraud” by the national Tea Party Express.

But depicting Davis as a puppet of the liberal Pelosi is a stretch. Davis says he’s a gun-owning life member of the National Rifle Association, that he opposes all federal funding for abortion, and that he would drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and “will caucus with the GOP,” meaning he’d vote for Boehner to be speaker, not Pelosi.

Davis’ Cheesy Counterattack

Davis’ deep pockets have allowed him to run his own TV ads, accusing both Democrats and Republicans of lying about him.

[TET ]

Jack Davis TV Ad:
“The Big Lie”

Narrator: They’re good at telling the big lie. Both political parties in Washington support bad trade deals, then blame each other for shipping our jobs overseas. Both vote for runaway spending, then blame each other for the growing debt. Now, Kathy Hochul, Jane Corwin, and the national parties, have a problem they didn’t count on. Jack Davis, an independent, opposes their trade deals, will take on their runaway spending, and won’t play their political games. So what are they doing now? Lying about Jack Davis, of course.

Jack Davis: I’m Jack Davis and I approved this message. [/TET]

In an ad released May 13, he accuses both parties of “telling the big lie,” supporting “bad trade deals” that ship jobs overseas, and voting for “runaway spending.” But he claims in the ad to be “an independent.” His erratic party history demonstrates that well enough — but the claim glosses over the fact that he has said he would caucus with Republican members should he be elected.

Davis’ latest ad, released May 17, is a remarkable appeal to emotion. It shows a husband announcing to his family that he has lost his job because “the company’s moving to China,” prompting his distraught wife to ask, “How can we pay for my chemotherapy without health insurance?” For sheer cheesiness, we’ve seen few ads that would compare to this.

[TET ]

Jack David TV Ad: “What’s at Stake”

Young girl: Daddy!

Young boy: Hey, Dad!

Woman: Honey? You’re early.

Man: I don’t have a job anymore. Company’s moving to China.

Woman: How can we pay for my chemotherapy without health insurance?

Young girl: Will mom be okay?

Narrator: Both parties support trade deals that ship our jobs overseas. Jack Davis will fight to keep jobs in America.

Jack Davis: I’m Jack Davis and I approved this message. [/TET]

Davis has said he would “cancel free trade agreements” and wants higher, “balancing” tariffs on goods from China and other countries with “predatory” trade policies. But as we’ve noted before when politicians made similar claims about trade deals, several economic studies say deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement have had a small impact, or even a positive one, on American jobs. (For particulars, see our “NAFTA/CAFTA Blame Game” article from May 10, 2010.)

The race is rated as a close one, and the outcome is uncertain.

— by Brooks Jackson

Sources

Hernandez, Raymond. “New York Congressman Resigns Over E-Mails” New York Times. 9 Feb 2011.

Beckel, Michael. “Surge of Last-Minute Spending Hits New York Special Congressional Election” OpenSecrets Blog; OpenSecrets.org. 17 May 2011.

Benjamin, Liz “Boehner: NY-26 Comes At ‘Critical Time’” YNN.com. 9 May 2011.

Long-Term Analysis of a Budget Proposal by Chairman Ryan” Congressional Budget Office. 5 Apr 2011.

Bendavid, Naftali. “GOP Aim: Cut $4 Trillion: Budget Plan Would Transform Medicare, Reset Budget Debate; Democrats Balk” Wall Street Journal. 4 Apr 2011.

House Committee on the Budget. “Path to Prosperity.” 5 Apr 2011.

CBO’s Estimates of Federal Debt Under the President’s Budget for 2012” Congressional Budget Office. 15 Apr 2011.

Zremski, Jerry. “Reynolds and Davis ads use WMD — weapons of mass distortion” Buffalo News. 5 Nov 2006.

Hernandez, Raymond. “Hoping Third Party Is Charm, Industrialist Jolts House Race” New York Times. 16 May 2011.

McCarthy, Robert J. “In defeat, Davis revels in stymieing Reynolds” Buffalo News. 12 Nov 2006.

Zremski, Jerry. “Davis’ comments shock GOP leaders” Buffalo News.15 Mar 2011.

Peoples, Jack. “Tea Party Express Calls Jack Davis a Fraud” Roll Call. 16 May 2011.

Davis, Jack. “Jack on the Issues” Undated web page, accessed 19 May 2011.