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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A Father-In-Law’s Attack Ads

It’s not every day you see a guy sinking over a million dollars into political ads to attack his son-in-law’s opponent. But the truth-stretching in the ads? That’s all too common.

The revelation that an in-law is the money behind a relentless campaign, featuring several attack ads, is the latest twist in a spirited race for Kentucky governor, to be settled Nov. 8.

The race pits incumbent Democrat Steve Beshear against Republican challenger David Williams, the state Senate president. The father-in-law in question is Williams’. But suspend that knowledge for a bit, if you can, as we unravel the chronology. Part of the intrigue surrounding a flurry of ads from an independent political expenditure group, going under the name Restoring America, resulted from the fact that the group declined to divulge who, exactly, was funding it.

It began with an ad from Restoring America titled “Missing,” which featured a spotlight on an empty podium with Gov. Beshear’s nameplate on it.

The idea was to poke at Beshear for declining to participate in any public debates early in the campaign (a charge that is now dated, since Beshear and Williams met in their first debate on Oct. 11). The ad’s announcer posed several questions to the empty podium, including this one: “Gov. Beshear, Kentucky lost nearly 100,000 jobs since you took office. Have you done anything to stop it?”

It’s true that Kentucky’s job loss under Beshear was 117,700 at its worst — once upon a time. But that was as of February 2010 — more than a year ago — according to employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since then, the number of those employed in Kentucky has slowly risen. The most recent BLS statistics show that in September Kentucky was just 76,100 jobs shy of where it had been in December 2007, when Beshear took office. So the ad does a healthy bit of rounding up. Also worth noting, Kentucky lost jobs at a slightly lower rate than the national average.

Beshear also has played loosely with jobs statistics, claiming on his website that tax incentives he championed have saved or created nearly 27,000 jobs. The Beshear campaign said that figure is based on reports from the Cabinet for Economic Development and projections about how many jobs could be created by projects that received the tax incentives. But the Lexington Herald-Leader on Sept. 30 investigated the claim and found the state doesn’t keep a running tab of the number of jobs created as a result of the incentives, and a spot check by the paper found that several of the jobs Beshear takes credit for haven’t yet been filled.

Another ad from Restoring America featured a coal miner, who said, “Beshear supports Obama’s EPA plans that’ll drive out our coal jobs while driving up our energy costs.”

In the small print, the ad cited a memo from the chairman of the Coal Operators and Associates Inc. complaining about the “regulatory assault” of the EPA. But the memo made no mention of Beshear supporting the EPA’s efforts. An ad from the Williams campaign that made a similar claim cited a press release from Beshear in November 2008, in which Beshear highlighted a letter he wrote to the EPA formally objecting to “a proposed move by the Bush Administration to weaken restrictions that prohibit dumping mountaintop mining waste near rivers and streams.” But that’s a far cry from supporting “Obama’s EPA plans that’ll drive out our coal jobs.”

In fact, the Herald-Leader concluded that the claim was false. In a review of the ad, it said:

Lexington Herald-Leader, Sept. 30: A year ago, he directed the state to join a lawsuit filed by the Kentucky Coal Association against the federal Environmental Protection Agency to prevent it from blocking coal projects by refusing to grant required permits.

Beshear has called EPA’s decisions “arbitrary and unreasonable,” which “threaten to end the responsible mining of coal and eliminate the jobs of an estimated 18,000 Kentucky miners.”

In his State of the Commonwealth Address to the legislature in February, Beshear told the EPA to “get off our backs.”

And on Sept. 29, The Associated Press reported that it obtained a letter Beshear wrote to Obama that stated, in part: “Kentucky has experienced tremendous frustration over the uncertainty and overreaching policies of the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Several television stations subsequently pulled the ad.

Beshear countered with an ad of his own, saying that the Restoring America ads are “not just misleading, they’re a clear violation of Kentucky law. And the court ordered them off the air, as an illegal attempt to influence the election and help David Williams.”

One might hear that and think the ads were deemed illegal because of their content. But that wasn’t the issue for the courts. Rather, the ads were pulled because Restoring America failed to disclose its source of funding.

On Oct. 17, a Kentucky circuit court judge ruled that “by hiding contributions” to the group, Restoring America was in violation of the state’s campaign finance laws. The court ordered an immediate restraining order halting the ads, adding that if the court did not act, the group “will continue to expressly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates in an illegal attempt to influence Kentucky’s 2011 General Election.”

Immediately after the court’s ruling, Restoring America filed an amended campaign finance report revealing that its entire $1.365 million budget came from Williams’ father-in-law, Terry Stephens, president of Stephens Pipe & Steel, a large manufacturer and distributor of chain-link fencing. The judge then lifted the restraining order.

That prompted a follow-up ad from the Beshear campaign that begins, “A shadowy group attacking Gov. Steve Beshear tried to illegally hide its donors.” It then cuts to a clip of a newscaster explaining that Stephens stepped forward and acknowledged he was the source of the group’s funding.

That’s all true. But the Beshear ad then goes on to attack Williams, the state Senate president, claiming he “personally blocked” legislation to expand gambling and to raise the high school dropout age from 16 to 18 — two of Beshear’s pet projects.

Williams did, in fact, oppose both of those efforts. But it’s a stretch to claim Williams “personally blocked” them. In 2008, for example, Beshear’s proposal for a referendum on casino gambling never got enough support for a full vote before the Democrat-led House. In 2009, the House passed a bill to allow Kentucky racetracks to operate video slot casinos. The bill died in a Senate committee. Williams spoke out forcefully against the plan, but the Senate budget committee voted 10 to 5 against bringing the bill to the full Senate for a vote.  So it wasn’t Williams alone who squashed the bill.

In the end, it’s not clear whether Williams’ father-in-law’s ads are making a difference. A poll released earlier this month showed Beshear with a 31-point lead.

— Robert Farley