A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Aiken’s Attack Ad Is Off-Key


Clay Aiken’s latest attack ad against incumbent Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers hits a couple of bad notes.

  • Aiken falsely claims Ellmers “voted against the payroll tax cut because she thought $1,000 out of your pocket is not that much money.” She voted against a two-month extension because it wasn’t long enough, and helped craft a bipartisan bill that extended the payroll tax holiday for one year.
  • Aiken also says Ellmers failed to “stop a Fort Bragg Air Wing from being moved out of state,” because she missed a deadline for filing a bill amendment with the House Rules Committee. But that had nothing to do with the amendment not coming up for a floor vote. More important, the airlift wing hasn’t moved, and Ellmers is still fighting to keep it from being relocated.

Aiken, a Democrat best known nationally for his runner-up finish on American Idol in 2003, is fighting an uphill battle to unseat the incumbent. Redistricting has given Republicans a decided advantage in North Carolina’s 2nd District, and a flash poll in late September showed Ellmers ahead, but with Aiken making a race of it.

Payroll Tax

In his latest ad, Aiken makes the argument that Washington has changed Ellmers.

“We all hope people go to Congress with good intentions,” Aiken says in direct-to-camera appeal. “But after Renee Ellmers got there, she voted against the payroll tax cut because she thought $1,000 out of your pocket is not that much money.” That’s a gross distortion of Ellmers’ position.

The payroll tax holiday enacted in 2011 reduced the employee share of the Social Security payroll tax from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. The temporary recession relief was set to expire at the end of 2011, setting off a contentious round of partisan congressional haggling.

The Aiken ad cites a Dec. 21, 2011, report on Time Warner Cable News on the House rejecting a Senate plan to extend payroll tax cuts for two months, with Ellmers joining the Republican majority. But as the accompanying interview with Ellmers indicates, her position was exactly the opposite of what Aiken suggests. In the interview, she explains that instead of a two-month extension, she and other House Republicans preferred extending it for a full year.

“We’re all about the year extension,” Ellmers said in the TWCN report. “That’s what we voted in the House of Representatives. … We’re just not in agreement that a two-month or eight-week extension, as the Senate has passed back to us, is acceptable.”

In the interview, Ellmers did refer to the payroll tax extension — which she estimated at $1,000 a year for the average American — as “not that much money for anyone.” But contrary to the Aiken ad’s suggestion that Ellmers wanted to nix the tax cut because it wasn’t that much money, the context of the interview makes clear that Ellmers was saying it was “not that much money” when compared with the comprehensive tax reform changes she and other Republicans envision.

Ellmers, Dec. 21, 2011: Well, the thing is, the payroll tax extension is not that much money for anyone. For a year, it’s about $1,000 for the average American. … So the point is that this isn’t really the way to go about good tax reform. We just want to make sure that over the year, in the economy we’re in, we’re not taking money out of those pockets. But what we’re working for is good, sustainable tax reform that’s flatter, fairer, that really is much simpler, and this will just lead up to that. So I’m for this in the sense that I don’t want to do any more harm to anyone. But the real goal here is good tax reform that we can all work on.

Her fuller comments also make clear that Ellmers believed an extension of the payroll tax cut was critical as the country continued to struggle to get out of a recession.

“We’ve got to give the people of North Carolina that reassurance moving forward into 2012 that they’re going to keep that money in their pockets,” Ellmers said.

In rejecting the Senate plan, House Republicans were pushing for a year-long extension, and had hoped to include provisions to pay for it with higher Medicare premiums on upper-income senior citizens, as well as a measure to fast-track a decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

But two days later, House Republicans relented and unanimously agreed to a two-month extension, with the promise of negotiating a longer-term agreement early in 2012. And, in fact, as a conference committee member, Ellmers helped to craft a compromise agreement in February 2012 to extend the payroll tax cut until the end of 2012. Ellmers, of course,  voted for that bill.

The payroll tax holiday was allowed to expire at the end of 2012, with neither Republicans nor Democrats fighting for its inclusion in the so-called fiscal cliff deal reached in January 2013.

Fighting for Bragg Air Wing

In the ad, Aiken also criticizes Ellmers because “she didn’t stop a Fort Bragg Air Wing from being moved out of state, which will hurt our local economy.”

But it wasn’t for lack of trying on Ellmers’ part.

After President Obama’s 2015 budget proposal called for deactivating the 440th Airlift Wing at Fort Bragg as a cost-cutting measure, Ellmers joined a bipartisan group from the North Carolina delegation that sent a letter in March to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey urging them to reconsider. The following month, Ellmers made a similar appeal during testimony at a House Armed Services Committee.

And in May, Ellmers introduced an amendment to the 2015 defense authorization bill to spare Fort Bragg’s 440th Airlift Wing from being deactivated or relocated. The amendment was co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of North Carolina congressmen, Democratic Reps. David Price and Mike McIntyre and Republican Rep. Richard Hudson.

In its support for the ad, the Aiken campaign argues that it’s not so much that Ellmers hasn’t advocated for saving the airlift wing, it’s that she botched those efforts. The Aiken campaign cited a May 22 story in the Fayetteville Observer that said Ellmers’ amendment “was submitted late, according to the House Armed Services Committee.”

The Rules Committee website does, in fact, note that Ellmers’ amendment was filed late. But that’s not as calamitous as it sounds. The fact that it was filed late did not preclude it from being considered. There were 322 amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 submitted for consideration. Of them, 32 are listed as “late” — most of them later than Ellmers’ proposed amendment — and yet 15 of them were “made in order,” meaning they were allowed by the Rules Committee to be voted on by the full House. The Rules Committee decided not to allow Ellmers’ amendment to be debated on the floor and voted on.

“Typically, we mark amendments when they have been submitted late,” a Rules Committee spokesman told us in a phone interview. “But the fact that it is late does not have any bearing on whether it is ‘made in order’ or not. The lateness factor does not preclude an amendment.”

So why did the Rules Committee decide not to allow the Ellmers amendment to move forward? There were hundreds of amendments to the NDAA, the spokesman said, and “we don’t normally get into why a particular amendment is ‘made in order’ or not.”

“We’re not sure why the Rules Committee rejected it,” said Lawrence Kluttz, a spokesman for Price, a Democrat who co-sponsored the amendment. “But it was not because it was submitted late. There were other amendments submitted late that were allowed to be considered on the floor.”

The ad also makes it sound like the airlift wing already has been moved out of the state, and that hasn’t happened — at least not yet.

“Number one, it’s still there,” Patrick Sebastian, an Ellmers campaign spokesman told us in a phone interview. “For Aiken to act as if the airlift is gone, he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Whatever happens in the future happens, but [Ellmers] is working hard with other legislators in North Carolina to keep the airlift wing in North Carolina.”

An amendment authored in the Senate by Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has at least delayed the proposed move until 60 days after the Air Force provides justification for it.

In the same interview highlighted in the ad, Ellmers vowed that despite the failure of her proposed amendment, she would keep up the fight.

“We’re not going to let this issue go. I feel very strongly – that not only for military readiness, but also to the economy of the Fayetteville area is dependent on that unit staying together,” Ellmers told TWCN.

 — Robert Farley