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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Fall TV Season’s Senate Air Wars

Ads from Crossroads GPS and the League of Conservation Voters signal the official start of the battle over the Senate.


The November elections are still nearly a year away, but the TV air wars over Senate seats have officially begun in earnest. The balance of power is up for grabs, and outside groups are pouring millions into ads attacking candidates in key Senate races. The biggest plays have come from Crossroads GPS, which is weighing in with five new ads attacking Democrats in five states, and the League of Conservation Voters, which is blanketing Massachusetts TV with an ad attacking Republican Sen. Scott Brown. Distortions abound. Welcome to the new fall TV season.

Among the highlights:

  • An ad from Crossroads GPS ties Elizabeth Warren to radical elements in the Occupy Wall Street movement, showing supportive comments she made about the protesters, but leaving out comments she made about the need to obey the law. The ad also cites dubious polling results to paint the group as one that supports “radical redistribution of wealth, and violence.”
  • Another Crossroads GPS ad claims that when Tim Kaine was governor of Virginia, his “reckless spending turned a budget surplus into a big deficit.” But Kaine actually trimmed spending to balance the budget, as required by state law.
  • Crossroads GPS ads recycle an old claim about support for the stimulus bill, saying that Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson and Kaine voted for projects that weren’t specifically mentioned in the legislation. They also misconstrue an “office upgrades” project, claiming it was $39 million worth of “wasteful spending,” though it was actually low-interest financing assistance.
  • The ad targeting Nelson exaggerates when it says the stimulus was “a bill Nelson helped write.” Nelson’s most notable contribution to the stimulus was a bipartisan agreement to trim $110 billion worth of proposed spending.
  • The ad also ties Nelson to Obama, claiming that “whenever Obama needs him, Ben Nelson’s there with another blank check.” But Nelson has voted along with the Democratic Party less than any other Democratic senator; he recently voted against allowing Obama’s $447 billion jobs bill to move forward.
  • Another Crossroads GPS ad accuses Montana Sen. Jon Tester of voting “against preventing Obama’s EPA from being able to regulate Montana farmers’ dust.” But the Senate never voted on such a measure. And Tester is on record as being opposed to increased regulations on farm dust.
  • An ad from the League of Conservation Voters paints Massachusetts Sen. Brown as a Washington insider in the pocket of big oil, citing his vote against closing tax loopholes for oil and gas companies. But the ad fails to mention that Brown has repeatedly said he favors elimination of all special tax breaks, provided it is tied to lower tax rates.


Crossroads GPS, sister organization of the super PAC American Crossroads, is no stranger to attack ads. The group, launched with the help of Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Karl Rove, who served as senior adviser to President George W. Bush, spent $70 million during the 2010 election cycle, and plans to ramp up its efforts with $240 million for 2012.

Crossroads GPS jumped into the 2012 Senate TV air wars with a splash, introducing five ads attacking Democratic candidates in key states, and backing the ads with a healthy $1.8 million buy.

Drawing Political Lines on Occupy Wall Street

The Massachusetts Senate race promises to be one of the most hotly contested, and expensive, in the country over the next year. The race pits incumbent Scott Brown, who narrowly won the seat in a January 2011 special election, against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor who helped oversee the TARP bailouts. Outside groups have begun dumping serious money into attack ads. According to the Boston Globe, some experts predict more than $60 million may be spent on TV ads before the election is over.

As the Crossroads entry in the Massachusetts race makes clear, Occupy Wall Street will likely become a political litmus.

[TET ]

Crossroads GPS TV Ad: “Foundation”

Announcer: Fourteen million Americans out of work, but instead of focusing on jobs, Elizabeth Warren sides with exteme-left protests.

At Occupy Wall Street, protesters attacked police, do drugs and trash public parks. They support radical redistribution of wealth and violence. But Warren boasts: “I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do … I support what they do.”

Intellectual foundation for what? We need jobs, not intellectual theories and radical protests.


The ad flashes violent images of Occupy Wall Street clashes with police as the announcer says, “Instead of focusing on jobs, Elizabeth Warren sides with extreme left protests.”

The announcer continues:

Announcer, Crossroads GPS ad: At Occupation Wall Street, protesters attack police, do drugs and trash public parks. They support radical redistribution of wealth, and violence.

But Warren boasts, “I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do. … I support what they do.”

Let’s start with Warren’s quote, which comes from an interview with Samuel P. Jacobs for the Daily Beast blog.

Jacobs: I’m curious: Is there something that is keeping you away from this movement? Is there a reason why you haven’t embraced it?

Warren: Look, everybody has to follow the law. That’s the starting point. I’ve been fighting this fight for years and years now. As I see it, this is about two central points: one, this is about the lack of accountability. That Wall Street has not been held accountable for how they broke the economy. The second is a values question, a fundamental fairness around the way that markets have been distorted and families have been hurt. I’m still fighting that fight. I’m just fighting it from this angle. I’m fighting it from … I want to fight it from the floor of the United States Senate. I think that is a place to make this difference.

Jacobs: Is showing solidarity with them going to get in the way of that?

Warren: It’s not a question of solidarity. I just don’t think that’s the right way to say it. I support what they do. I want to say this in a way that doesn’t sound puffy. I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do. That’s the right thing. There has to be multiple ways for people to get involved and take back our country. The fight that I’m fighting now is one that is directed towards the United State Senate. That’s just how I see it.

So Warren did, in fact, say, “I support what they do” and “I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do.” But as her fuller comment shows, any suggestion that she supports attacking police, or doing drugs, or engaging in violence or even civil disobedience is contradicted by her opening statement, that “everybody has to follow the law. That’s the starting point.”

In subsequent interviews, Warren attempted to walk back her comment a bit.

She told the Boston Herald that she misspoke when she said she “created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do.”

“What I meant to say was I’ve been protesting Wall Street for a long time now,” Warren said. “The Occupy Wall Street movement is organic, it is independent, and that’s how it should be.”

The ad also claims that Occupy Wall Street “support[s] radical redistribution of wealth, and violence,” citing an op-ed from Democratic pollster Doug Schoen in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 18.

According to Schoen, Occupy Wall Street “comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence.”

Schoen bases that comment on a poll his firm conducted of 200 Occupy protesters. But Schoen’s assessment isn’t strongly supported in the results of the poll.

The claim that Occupy protesters believe in “radical redistribution of wealth” is based on this:

Schoen poll question: “What would you like to see the Occupy Wall Street movement achieve?”

The results:

35% Influence the Democratic Party the way the Tea Party has influenced the GOP

4% Radical redistribution of wealth

5% Overhaul of tax system: replace income tax with flat tax

7% Direct Democracy

9% Engage & mobilize Progressives

9% Promote a national conversation

11% Break the two-party duopoly

4% Dissolution of our representative democracy/capitalist system

4% Single payer health care

4% Pull out of Afghanistan immediately

8% Not sure

So 4 percent said “radical redistribution of wealth” was their top priority. Again, it was a poll of 200 people. So that’s eight people. The poll actually showed higher support for an “overhaul of tax system: replace income tax with flat tax” — something supported by most of the Republican presidential candidates — than a “radical redistribution of wealth” (which had the least support). Our guess is Crossroads GPS didn’t want to say, “They support a flat tax, and violence.”

Oh, and twice as many people aren’t sure what their goals are. So what are the protesters about? According to the Schoen poll, when asked what frustrates them the most about the political process in the United States, 30 percent said the influence of corporate/moneyed special interests; 21 percent said partisanship; and another 15 percent said joblessness.

As for supporting violence, that’s based on these poll results:

Schoen poll: Would you support the use of civil disobedience to achieve your goals?

Results: 98% Yes; 1% Maybe; 1% No

What about violence?

69% No; 31% Yes

In other words, more than two out of three said they did not support violence to achieve their goals. And again, Warren said that “everybody has to follow the law” in the same interview the ad cites to tie Warren to Occupy Wall Street. And she has been clear in several interviews that she does not condone violence.

Shortfall Becomes Deficit

Crossroads is spending $616,000 on an ad in Virgina attacking Democrat Tim Kaine, claiming that as the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he was “Obama’s partisan cheerleader” and that he was a “reckless” spender when he served as Virginia’s governor. In the Senate race, Kaine faces Republican challenger George Allen, also a former Virginia governor and a former U.S. senator.

[TET ]

Crossroad GPS TV Ad: “Applause”

Announcer: Tim Kaine has been Obama’s partisan cheerleader, applauding every idea.

Tim Kaine: This stimulus is critically important to put people back to work.

Announcer: But Virginia lost thousands of jobs.

Show us the money. It went to critically important projects like studying ants in Africa, office upgrades for politicians — that’s nothing new for Kaine. As Virginia governor, Tim Kaine’s reckless spending turned a budget surplus into a big deficit.

Reckless spending, massive debt, no wonder Tim Kaine applauds Obama.


The ad claims: “As Virginia governor, Tim Kaine’s reckless spending turned a budget surplus into a big deficit. Reckless spending, massive debt.” Text in the background reads: “2006: $1.2 billion surplus, 2009: $3.7 billion deficit.”

For backup, Crossroads provided two stories from the Virginian-Pilot. The first story, published on Jan. 8, 2006, just before Kaine took office as governor, stated that the budget “debate centers on whether the $1.2 billion surplus should be used for one-time expenses such as construction rather than to create new programs with recurring costs.” The second story, from Feb. 17, 2009, a year before Kaine left office, states, “In December, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine projected that Virginia faced a $2.9 billion budget shortfall. He increased that estimate to $3.7 billion on Monday based on much-lower-than-expected tax payments.”

But those are misleading snapshots. And shortfalls aren’t deficits.

Virginia adopts a new budget every two years, and amendments are added to it in the odd year to square the numbers. There’s no question that Virginia experienced serious budget shortfalls during the recession due to much lower-than-anticipated revenues. But the shortfall was closed by the end of the biennium. The same Virginian-Pilot story in which Kaine talks about a $3.7 billion shortfall, notes that the stimulus provided $1 billion in budget relief, and that lawmakers were forced to cut $2.7 billion to balance the budget, as required by the state constitution.

Responding to the ad on Nov. 10, Kaine told WVEC ABC 13: “I left office with two balanced budgets that I submitted because you have to, by law, submit balanced budgets.”

Stimulus Spin

Next, we have a Crossroads ad targeting Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. Several Republicans have announced an interest in the seat, including state Sen. Deb Fischer, state Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg.

[TET ]

Crossroad GPS TV Ad: “Bacon”

Announcer: Ben Nelson said he had “trimmed the fat, fried the bacon and milked the sacred cows” from Obama’s failed stimulus, a bill Nelson helped write.

So, let’s take a look: $1.9 million to study ants in Africa, $39 million for office upgrades for politicians and the list goes on.

How did Nelson pay for it all? The national debt is up over $9 trillion since he’s been in Washington.

Whenever Obama needs him, Ben Nelson is there will another blank check.


The ad claims that the economic stimulus, which Nelson supported, included $1.9 million to study ants in Africa and $39 million for “office upgrades for politicians.” Crossroads used identical examples of alleged “wasteful spending” in the stimulus in its ad attacking Kaine. In fact, the claim is actually carry-over from 2010, when Crossroads used the same two examples in an ad that attacked Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes of New Hampshire. We fact-checked the claims then, and since there is nothing new, we’ll simply remind you what we said:

FactCheck.org, Oct. 1, 2010: Here’s the most important thing to know in evaluating the ad’s claims, though: Hodes didn’t vote for the projects mentioned. Nobody did. They weren’t in the bill.

Money to fund the “office upgrades for politicians” is actually going to help finance a renovation of the 140-year-old Kansas Statehouse, which has been underway for more than 10 years. That money wasn’t earmarked in the stimulus bill; it’s being borrowed by Kansas officials at a reduced interest rate through a program set up by the bill, the Build America Bond program. The bonds program created by ARRA allows state and local governments to lower the borrowing costs of certain projects. The IRS announced the new program in April 2009, saying, “This new program is intended to assist state and local governments in financing capital projects at lower borrowing costs and to stimulate the economy and create jobs.”

The Kansas State Legislature plans to use $39 million in Build America Bonds to help finance the estimated $285 million renovation. … The years-long remodeling could provide an additional financial boost to the state. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that the state’s capital city could “see a $3 million to $4.5 million infusion” if at least 30,000 more people visited the Statehouse each year as a result of the upgrades.

As for the African ants, the stimulus legislation gave a chunk of money to the National Science Foundation — ARRA didn’t call for any ant studies itself. The National Science Foundation, in turn, awarded more than $1.9 million to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to research different species of ants in the islands of the Southwest Indian Ocean and east Africa. The project, at least in theory, could advance our understanding of biodiversity. A bit more detail on the project is available at the Recovery.gov website.

The ad also cites Nelson’s claim in a Feb. 7, 2009, press release that with regard to the economic stimulus, “We’ve trimmed the fat, fried the bacon and milked the sacred cows.” The ad then calls the stimulus “a bill Nelson helped write.” But Nelson didn’t write the initial bill, which originated in the House. His comment refers to a “bipartisan agreement” reached with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to trim $110 billion from one version of the stimulus bill.

After criticizing Nelson for supporting the stimulus and its so-called “wasteful” projects, the announcer in the ad asks, “How did Nelson pay for it all? The national debt is up over $9 trillion since he’s been in office.” It’s true that the debt has gone up that much since Nelson took office in January 2001, the same month George W. Bush was sworn in as president. The most recent cost estimate of the economic stimulus bill by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is $825 billion.

The ad takes one last dig at Nelson, stating: “Whenever Obama needs him, Ben Nelson is there with another blank check.” But Nelson has hardly been a yes-man for the Obama agenda. In fact, he has voted with the Democratic majority less often than any other Democratic senator during Obama’s presidency, according to a vote analysis by the Washington Post. In March, Nelson voted against the Democratic Senate budget plan, and in October, Nelson was one of just three Democrats who voted against moving forward with Obama’s $447 billion jobs plan.

Settling the Dust

Another ad from Crossroads GPS claims that Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana “voted against preventing Obama’s EPA from being able to regulate Montana farmers’ dust.” But there was never an up-or-down vote on such a measure.

[TET ]

Crossroads GPS TV Ad: “Dirt”

Announcer: Remember when Jon Tester said:

Tester: Isn’t it time we make the Senate look a little bit more like Montana?

Announcer: Well, now Tester’s looking a little more like Washington. Tester calls himself a dirt farmer, but in Washington, he voted against preventing Obama’s EPA from being able to regulate Montana farmers’ dust.

Big government regulations that could hurt our farmers and jobs. That’s not the Montana way. Tell Tester — on jobs — he needs to work for Montana, not Obama.


What Tester voted against was allowing debate on amendments to a bill about the manipulation of Chinese currency, after it had already garnered enough votes in the Senate to invoke cloture, or cut off debate and proceed to a final vote on passage. One of the amendments that Republicans wanted to add to that legislation — Sen. Mike Johanns’ “Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011” — would have prevented the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, implementing or enforcing regulations on particulate matter larger than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

The EPA is periodically required by the Clean Air Act to review the science available on particulate matter to determine if changes need to be made to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter. Back in April, the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards recommended that the agency consider “either retaining or revising the current standard” downward for coarse particles, which the agency considers a risk to public health. Inhalable coarse particles, including those found on roadways and dusty industries such as farming, which are between 2.5 micrometers and 10 micrometers in diameter, would be subject to the stricter limits.

The panel’s recommendations were met with opposition from farmers who said that increased regulations would place a financial burden on their industry by making them reduce dirt and dust from their farms. And several members of Congress subsequently introduced legislation to block any attempt at implementing stricter limits. However, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had been saying for months that it was a “mischaracterization” to claim that the EPA was attempting to expand regulation of dust from farms.

During congressional testimony in March, Jackson said that while the EPA was reviewing the matter, it had no intention of changing the standards currently in place. Jackson had said that she would make a final determination in July on what the EPA would do, but that time came and went without a final decision. Two months later in September, an EPA spokeswoman told FactCheck.org that the review was still ongoing, but that the agency still had “no plans to put stricter standards in place.” Then, in letters to Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Amy Klobuchar in October, Jackson announced her final decision, saying she would propose no change to current EPA regulations. “I am prepared to propose the retention — with no revision — of the current PM10 standard and form when it is sent to [Office of Management and Budget] for interagency review,” she wrote.

Furthermore, Tester is on record as having been opposed to any changes from the EPA. In February, Tester was one of more than 30 senators who signed a letter asking Jackson to retain the current standard for coarse particulate matter instead of lowering it. And after Jackson made clear her intent not to propose a change, Tester released a statement, saying: “I’m pleased the administration heeded my call to back off of increasing regulation on farm dust so that farmers can keep doing their jobs.”

The Associated Press reported that, so far, one cable network in Montana has pulled the Crossroads ad from the airwaves “amid complaints from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester that it falsely accuses him of supporting tougher rules for farm dust.” The ad has not been pulled from broadcast stations, however.

Oil-Stained Ad

The League of Conservation Voters began airing an ad Nov. 9 that portrays Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown as an anti-environment Washington insider who is in the pocket of big oil. The Boston Globe reports that the group had made a $1.85 million ad buy, enough so that the average viewer will see the ad 25 times over the next month.

[TET ]

League of Conservation Voters TV Ad: “Tell Senator Brown: Stop Voting with Big Oil”

Announcer: Scott Brown said he’s one of us, but there’s a growing stain on his record.

Senator Brown’s taken over $150,000 from big oil. And while Americans have been struggling at the pump, Senator Brown voted to keep giving oil companies billions in special government handouts — sticking us with the bill and a really big mess.

Tell Senator Brown to vote to end tax breaks for big oil.


The ad begins by showing a man who is supposed to be Brown getting out of his signature pickup truck, leaving black oily prints on everything he touches.

The announcer says: “Scott Brown said he’s one of us. But there’s a growing stain on his record. Senator Brown’s taken over $150,000 from big oil. And while Americans have been struggling at the pump, Senator Brown voted to keep giving oil companies billions in special government handouts. Sticking us with the bill and a really big mess. Tell Senator Brown to vote to end tax breaks for Big Oil.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Brown has received $110,850 in campaign contributions from individuals employed in the oil and gas industry, and another $45,500 from oil and gas PACs. That comes to $156,350. Brown got the seventh-highest amount of oil and gas contributions among senators for the 2012 election cycle, according to CRP.

As for the claim that Brown “voted to keep giving oil companies billions in special government handouts,” that refers to his May 17 vote against moving forward with a bill that sought to close big oil tax loopholes. It needed 60 “yes” votes to proceed, and it fell short, 52-48, with votes largely falling along party lines.

While that vote in not in dispute, the Brown campaign released a video claiming his position is being distorted, and that “Brown actually supports eliminating special tax breaks if it results in lower tax rates for everyone else.”

In an op-ed to the Lowell Sun, published Nov. 1, Brown wrote:

Brown, Nov. 1: They also suggest I am opposed to removing special breaks from the tax code, when the truth is I support a fairer and simpler tax code so long as the savings from eliminating special deductions and credits go toward lowering rates and not to feeding the insatiable appetite of the big spenders in Washington.

And in an Aug. 13 op-ed published in the Boston Globe, Brown wrote:

Brown, Aug. 13: With personal income tax rates about to increase for millions of Americans in 2013, we need a broad tax reform package that eliminates the special loopholes, simplifies the tax code, and lowers rates.

One other minor point: The ad shows the Brown character driving away in a pickup with a Washington, D.C., license plate (and the vanity tag: BROWN). The subtle message is that Brown is a Washington insider. But the Brown campaign says that his signature pickup truck is registered in Massachusetts.

These ads from Crossroads and the League of Conservation Voters hit on themes likely to be repeated in Senate races around the country: with conservative groups trying to tie Democrats to Obama and his policies, particularly the economic stimulus, and progressive groups accusing Republicans of supporting tax breaks for millionaires and oil companies. Did we mention that we’re still nearly a year away from the election?

— by Robert Farley, D’Angelo Gore and Lalita Clozel


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