A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Final Week Spin


With the midterm elections now just days away, many campaigns and outside groups are making their final appeals. And, as has been the case all election season, some of the claims miss the mark.

  • An ad from Florida Rep. Alan Grayson grossly overstates the sweep of his efforts to ensure that American flags be made in the U.S.A. “Now, look at all these jobs,” Grayson boasts, as the camera pans across workers in the plant where, it turns out, not a single job was added due to Grayson’s efforts.
  • Alaska Sen. Mark Begich wrongly claimed in a debate that he “didn’t run attack ads” against Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008. One Begich ad features “longtime Ted Stevens voters” questioning the senator’s innocence in a financial ethics scandal.
  • Banners in Iowa accuse Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst of being a “jobs killer,” and, in doing so, distort her position on the Renewable Fuel Standard and the wind production tax credit. She has said she’s against subsidies in general but she’ll “passionately” defend the RFS.
  • In New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, Republican Mike Frese misuses federal jobs data to falsely imply the Affordable Care Act has cost the state tens of thousands of jobs. In fact, there is evidence the law is creating jobs in the state.
  • An ad attacking Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn in Georgia accuses her of being open to “a massive tax increase,” though Nunn has proposed no net tax increases.
  • An NRA ad says North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan “helped Obama and Bloomberg push their extreme anti-gun agenda,” but Hagan has voted against key pieces of the gun control agenda promoted by President Obama and Michael Bloomberg.
  • Arkansas House candidate Patrick Henry Hays, a Democrat, boasts in an ad that he’s a “proud member of the NRA.” He is. But the group has endorsed his Republican opponent and given Hays a grade of “F” for his stance on gun-related issues.

And we’ve seen repeats of claims we already debunked in new ads in races from North Carolina to Oregon.

In this campaign cycle, House and Senate ads alone ran more than 1.2 million times on local broadcast television through Oct. 20, according to Kantar Media Intelligence’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. To put that in perspective, a Bloomberg columnist noted that if one were to watch all those ads back-to-back, it would take more than a year, without sleep. But you’d finish in time for the Iowa presidential nomination caucuses.

Political Flag Waving

We hate to sound unpatriotic, but an ad from Florida Rep. Alan Grayson grossly overstates the sweep of his efforts to ensure that American flags be made in the U.S.A.

Grayson’s amendment required the Department of Homeland Security to buy U.S.-made flags — but not the entire federal government, as he implies in the ad. It also created no jobs at the flag manufacturing plant featured in the ad, despite his boast about “all these jobs” he helped to create.

The ad opens with Grayson complaining about American flags being made in China. “For years, our government was buying American flags made in China,” Grayson says.

“When I got to Congress, I was determined to do something about it,” Grayson says as he strolls around an American plant making American flags. “Last year, I wrote and passed the amendment to ensure that American flags are made well and made here in America.”

Legislative efforts to ensure that American flags purchased by the federal government are American-made have been kicking around the halls of the House and Senate since at least 2008, when Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley first introduced the All-American Flag Act. That predates Grayson’s first stint in the House. Sen. Sherrod Brown introduced a similar bill in the Senate in 2011 and again in 2013. But legislation hasn’t passed both chambers in a single session.

Grayson’s ad suggests he was able to swoop into Congress and nail it down. Not so fast.

Grayson’s office pointed to an amendment proposed in June 2013 to the Homeland Security Appropriations Act. The amendment prohibited the use of funds to purchase an American flag if the flag was “certified as a foreign end product.” Congressional records show the amendment was sponsored and offered by Rep. Cheri Bustos, but her office says she teamed with Grayson on it (and Grayson’s office says he actually wrote the amendment). It was agreed to in a voice vote.

The amendment ensured that all American flags purchased with funds from the fiscal year 2014 Homeland Security Appropriations Act would be made in the U.S. However, as Bustos made clear in her speech from the floor the day it was introduced, the amendment was “just the first step in what I hope is a larger effort to require that all American flags purchased by the federal government are actually made in America.” That legislative effort is still ongoing.

So how big of an issue is this? Proponents of such legislation often point to statistics from the U.S. Census that in 2012, the U.S. imported $3.8 million worth of American flags, mostly from China. But that’s all U.S. purchases, including those by the federal government, and it’s a fraction of the overall American flag business in the U.S.

Dale Coots, marketing manager for Annin Flagmakers, which bills itself as the oldest and largest flag manufacturer in the U.S., said retail flag sales were more than $160 million last year. So imports make up less than 2.5 percent of sales, she said.

Most major retailers require flags to be American-made, Coots said, because customers demand it. She doubts many of the flags purchased by the federal government are imported either, so any impact on jobs would be minimal, she said.

Grayson also makes it seem like his amendment at least led to job creation at the factory shown in the ad. “Now look at all these jobs,” Grayson says as the camera shows images of workers making flags. “We’re putting people to work and we’re making a flag that we can all be proud of.”

But it turns out not a single worker at Goodwill Industries of South Florida, the plant shown in the ad, has been added due to Grayson’s efforts. (Company officials specifically asked that the company not be identified or mentioned by name in the ad, because Goodwill does not endorse political candidates.)

Any suggestion that Grayson’s amendment increased the workforce there is “not true,” Lourdes de la Mata-Little, vice president of marketing at Goodwill Industries, told us by phone. About 18 to 20 workers are employed there, she said, and the number hasn’t changed in years. Goodwill has had a contract for more than 15 years to make interment flags for the Department of Veterans Affairs, she said.

One final note: The ad at one point shows a flag-waving little girl in a wagon. No legislative proposals address the origin of American flags sold to the public. So that girl’s flag could have been from anywhere, including China. But based on current market trends, the overwhelming odds are that it was American-made.

No Attack Ads?

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich claimed in an Oct. 30 debate that he “didn’t run attack ads” in 2008 when running against then-Sen. Ted Stevens. Yes, he did. One Begich ad referred to Stevens’ indictment on financial ethics charges that year. It featured several Alaskans making comments about Stevens such as, “He’s let us all down.”

Stevens was a Republican senator for Alaska from 1968 until 2009. He was defeated by Begich in the 2008 election. That was also a year in which Stevens was indicted and later convicted, on Oct. 27, 2008, on seven felony counts of making false statements on federal financial disclosure forms about $250,000 worth of gifts and services to renovate his Alaska home. Stevens maintained his innocence after the verdict was read, saying, according to the New York Times, “This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial.”

In fact, a federal judge set aside the conviction in April 2009 and appointed an independent investigator to look into possible misconduct by lawyers in the trial. That investigator’s report — released in March 2012, after Stevens’ 2010 death in a plane crash — found that two Justice Department prosecutors had hidden documents that would have aided Stevens’ defense.

At the Oct. 30 debate, Begich’s Republican challenger, Dan Sullivan, brought up the 2008 Senate race. He said Begich had run attack ads in both of his races saying his opponents couldn’t be trusted. Sullivan asked, “Knowing what you know now, that Ted Stevens was wrongly convicted by corrupt Justice Department lawyers and was an honorable man throughout his entire career, do you regret the TV ads you ran against Sen. Stevens in 2008 and have you apologized to his family?”

Begich replied: “Actually, Dan, I don’t know if you saw that campaign, but I ran ads about what I wanted to do for Alaska. I didn’t run attack ads.” That’s not accurate, in at least one instance. One of Begich’s 2008 ads refers to the indictment of Stevens, and features “longtime Ted Stevens voters” questioning the senator’s innocence.

The ad doesn’t spell out exactly what the people in the ad are talking about, but the reference is quite clear. One man says, “He’s not the same Ted Stevens he used to be,” and a woman says, “The saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” That’s followed by more Alaskans referring to the ethics charges plaguing the longtime senator. “There’s still too many unanswered questions. … I think he’s just, you know, trying to cover it up. … He’s let us all down and it’s time to move on.”

NextGen’s Banner Attack

Political attacks aren’t limited to the TV. The group NextGen Climate Action placed 4-foot banners around Iowa this week that say, “Joni Ernst: The Iowa Jobs Killer,” with an image of destroyed wind turbines. NextGen says the banners highlight Ernst’s opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard and wind production tax credit, but that’s a distortion of Ernst’s position. She has said she’s against subsidies in general but supports the RFS.

nextgen_banner

The RFS, created in 2005, is a government mandate that requires a certain amount of renewable fuels — such as ethanol — be used in transportation fuel. It’s a popular issue in Iowa, and the Senate race, as the corn-based ethanol is made at 42 plants in Iowa, according to the Iowa Corn Promotion Board and Iowa Corn Growers Association. The state is also the top wind energy producer, in terms of the percentage of electricity generated, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

NextGen’s press release on the banners said it had distributed “hundreds” of them in “key locations.” A spokesperson for NextGen, the liberal group founded by billionaire climate-change activist Tom Steyer, told us Ernst has made it clear that she would end the RFS if she could. Not exactly.

Ernst says she would favor ending all government subsidies, but “until and unless that day comes,” she’ll “passionately” defend the RFS. She laid out her position in a letter to the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association in response to a survey by the group in December 2013.

Ernst, Dec. 31, 2013: While I do not believe the government should pick winners and losers in our economy, and from a philosophical standpoint I do not believe in taxpayer subsidies, I do believe that if we were to end these subsidies, it would have to be done across the board, for every sector at the exact same time – meaning until and unless that day comes, I will passionately stand in defense of the RFS and other related programs.

So she’s against subsidies overall, but for the RFS as long as any subsidies exist.

In January, Ernst also co-sponsored an Iowa Senate resolution urging the federal government to renew its commitment to the RFS. That resolution said an EPA proposal to cut the level of renewable fuels required would cause the loss of “37,400 ethanol-related jobs and the loss of 7,500 biodiesel-related jobs.” (The EPA’s final rule on the topic has been sent to the Office of Management and Budget for review.)

The executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, Monte Shaw, told the Courier of the state’s Cedar Valley in July that there was little difference between Ernst and her opponent, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, on the RFS issue. “From our perspective, she has voted with the renewable fuels industry each time there was a key vote that we targeted, as a state senator,” he told the paper. (Shaw ran, unsuccessfully, for the Republican nomination for Iowa’s 3rd District this year.)

Ernst’s position on the RFS has been a sore point between her and NextGen. In early August, Ernst’s campaign asked local TV stations to stop airing a NextGen ad that claimed Ernst “would eliminate support for Iowa renewables” on the grounds that it was false. The letter from Ernst’s lawyer includes a copy of Ernst’s July 29 letter to the EPA urging the agency to “not cut corn ethanol and biodiesel levels in the RFS” (see page 17).

Ernst has reiterated that she is opposed to subsidies, but will support the RFS. Her spokeswoman, Gretchen Hamel, told the Globe Gazette in Mason City, Iowa, in July: “In a perfect world, in a free market, she would support doing away with [the RFS], but that’s not the case.”

At the Iowa State Fair in early August, Ernst said, “Lots of jobs in Iowa depend on the RFS. I will continue to stand for the RFS,” according to the Des Moines Register. She was pressed on her position on tax credits, the paper reported, and she said, “[I]f we could get rid of all tax credits, that would be wonderful. But what I’m looking for is reform in the long term of our tax system, which makes the environment fairer, flatter and simpler for everyone.”

Obamacare: Job Killer or Creator?

In New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, Republican Mike Frese falsely implies the Affordable Care Act has cost the state tens of thousands of jobs.

Frese has called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, claiming that the law is “strangling job growth.” This ad, which began airing Oct. 30, includes a video clip of his opponent, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, saying, “The Affordable Care Act is a job creator.” As she speaks, viewers are shown these words: “Between April and October, New Mexico LOST more than 20,000 jobs” — implying the Affordable Care Act was to blame for the job losses. It wasn’t.

The job losses were not as large as initially reported by the news report cited in the ad, and there is no evidence that the Affordable Care Act has cost the state jobs. In fact, there is evidence the law is creating jobs in New Mexico.

The ad cites a Dec. 9, 2013, KOAT-TV report, which was based on Bureau of Labor Statistics figures contained in a Dec. 2, 2013, report issued by the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. That report showed (on page 14) that the state’s seasonally adjusted employment figure for October 2013 was 860,292 — 20,382 less than the 880,674 figure in April 2013. But that story made no mention of the Affordable Care Act. It quoted Suzan Reagan, a senior program manager at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico, as saying “government sequestration and the uncertainty of what’s going on (at) the Federal level” were the reasons for the decline in employment.

The “government sequestration” refers to automatic federal budget cuts totaling $85 billion in fiscal year 2013 that took effect in March 2013 — resulting in about $4.6 billion less in federal funding for states that year. It was the first part of a scheduled $1 trillion cut in federal spending over 10 years. New Mexico is particularly vulnerable to federal budget cuts. It is “dangerously dependent” on the federal government, according to an October 2013 cover story on the state’s economic woes in Albuquerque Business First.

“The federal government cutting back on spending before and during sequestration and continuing has had a slowing effect on New Mexico’s economy,” Reagan said in an email to us. “New Mexico is home to three Air Force installations, White Sands Missile range, two national laboratories, US Forest lands and the Bureau of Indian Affairs which means that the federal spending or lack of it has a big impact.”

More important, Reagan told us that the large job losses reported by KOAT turned out to be grossly overstated. “At the time, we felt that the data would see significant revisions and was overstating the weakness in the economy,” she said. “The series was benchmarked earlier this year smoothing out the large decline.”

BLS annually revises its employment data in a process known as benchmarking to account for survey errors. After benchmarking, the state’s employment figures now show a job loss of less than 3,000 from April 2013 to October 2013, according to the BLS data.

Not only that, but Reagan says the Affordable Care Act this year is “adding some jobs” in the state’s insurance and health care sectors. The law didn’t take full effect until January. From January to September, New Mexico saw an increase of 1,500 finance jobs, which would include insurance, and an increase of 3,700 jobs in the education and health care sector, Reagan said, citing BLS figures.

As we’ve written before, experts have projected that the Affordable Care Act may cause a small loss of low-wage jobs but a rise in better-paid jobs in the health care and insurance sectors.

The state’s most recent labor report included this example of the health care law’s impact:

New Mexico Labor Market Review, Oct. 24: Sixteen health centers in New Mexico will receive additional funding of more than $4 million to expand their primary care services. Expansion of services will include the hiring of 52 staff, extension of operating hours, and the offering of new health care services. The funding is available due to the Affordable Care Act, with the purpose of reaching an estimated 16,943 new patients on top of the estimated 290,000 currently served by the centers.

One last thing: Frese’s ad also takes a Lujan Grisham quote on her insurance premiums out of context.

It shows Lujan Grisham at a Dec. 12, 2013, congressional hearing saying, “I pay more because of the Affordable Care Act.” But that’s not all she said. The reason, she said, is because of a provision of the law that is specific to members of Congress. “I pay more because of the Affordable Care Act. But that is because I am required to go to the D.C. exchange. Not because I am a consumer left to navigate through the Affordable Care Act rules in my own State. So it depends on the real details of those issues,” she said.

Nunn Wants to Raise Taxes?

An ad from Georgia One PAC says Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn “agrees with Obama that we should consider raising taxes. We all know what that really means, a massive tax increase.”

That claim is thinly based on a comment Nunn made to a TV reporter when she announced her candidacy. She said in vague terms that in order to reduce the deficit in a responsible way, “we need to put both spending and revenues on the table.”

But throughout her campaign, Nunn has not proposed any net tax increase, let alone a “massive” one. She argues, as many Republicans do, that a simpler and fairer tax code would “fuel economic growth.”

On her Web page, Nunn advocates “revenue-neutral tax reform.” Nunn talks about a tax reform vision that includes lowering the corporate tax rate, but “eliminating tax breaks for companies who close factories and ship jobs overseas” and “simplifying” the income tax code by “expanding the standard deduction while closing unnecessary loopholes.” There would be winners and losers in such a scenario, of course. But Nunn claims that one of her guiding principles is that “reform shouldn’t raise taxes.”

Nunn, campaign website: Although individual reforms will effect each family differently, I will not support any proposal to overhaul the tax code that increases the overall tax burden on Georgia families.

In fact, as we have written in the past, support for “closing unnecessary loopholes” in personal income taxes and “eliminating tax breaks for companies who close factories and ship jobs overseas” — such as Nunn has advocated — wouldn’t necessarily violate the Americans for Tax Reform “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” not to raise taxes. (Nunn has not signed the pledge, though her opponent, David Perdue, has.)

As we wrote back in 2010, “[The Pledge] leaves ample room for elimination of any number of special tax breaks so long as the overall level of taxation is not increased.”

ATR also addresses the issue on its Web page on “myths” about the pledge.

ATR website: Every single exclusion, adjustment, deduction, and credit is on the table for tax reform under the Pledge. No tax break is exempt from elimination under the Pledge. The only requirement is that the additional tax revenue raised by eliminating (or curtailing) a tax break get plowed into lower marginal tax rates (or other income tax relief).

That’s what Nunn is proposing.

The Obama/Bloomberg Agenda

An ad from the NRA Institute for Legislative Action says North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan “helped Obama and Bloomberg push their extreme anti-gun agenda.” But Hagan hardly has been in lockstep with the gun control agenda promoted by President Obama and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“Out-of-state gun control groups are all-in for Kay Hagan, because she helped Obama and Bloomberg push their extreme anti-gun agenda,” the ad’s narrator says. “Hagan voted for gun control. So liberal billionaires throw millions at her campaign. That’s how it works.”

It’s true that Hagan voted for the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment, which would have expanded background checks to private sales by unlicensed individuals at gun shows and over the Internet. But on the same day, she also voted against several other measures supported by Obama and Bloomberg, a multibillionaire who founded Bloomberg LP, a financial news and information service.

For example, she voted to allow cross-state reciprocity for the carrying of certain concealed firearms, a measure specifically opposed by Bloomberg’s group, Everytown for Gun Safety. Hagan also voted against a proposal to ban certain assault weapons, a prominent part of Obama’s gun control plan. And Hagan voted against an amendment that sought to regulate large-capacity ammunition feeding devices, something that was part of both Obama’s and Bloomberg’s agendas.

It’s a matter of opinion to describe the gun-control measures proposed by Obama and Bloomberg as “extreme.” But one proposal has broad public support, even among NRA households. A Pew Research Center survey released in April found that 74 percent of Americans who live in a household with an NRA member supported the proposal to expand background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows — as the amendment Hagan supported would have done. There was far less support among this group for a ban on assault-style weapons (33 percent) or on high-capacity ammunition clips (35 percent) — two measures that Hagan voted against.

NRA Part II

Standing in front of a garage-table display of his guns, Arkansas House candidate Patrick Henry Hays boasts in an ad that he’s a “proud member of the NRA.” A mailer from the state Democratic Party goes even further, featuring quotes from NRA’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, praising Hays for his “leadership.”

Hays, a Democrat, is a dues-paying member of the NRA. And Hays did get a letter from LaPierre in September praising Hays for his efforts on behalf of gun owners and nominating Hays to receive the NRA’s “prestigious National Patriot’s Medal”

But, as Politico points out, the quotes from LaPierre were part of a fundraising form letter sent out to most NRA members. The NRA Political Victory Fund has graded Hays an “F” and has endorsed his Republican opponent, French Hill. According to the NRA, those graded an “F” are a “true enemy of gun owners’ rights.”

So where does Hays stand? On his campaign website, Hays says that he opposes an assault weapons ban but “understands that we need background checks on commercial gun sales — to help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.” The NRA has aggressively targeted candidates who either voted for or expressed support for expanded background checks, including for those sold at gun shows or over the Internet.

Politico noted that in response to the Democratic Party of Arkansas mailer, the NRA Political Victory Fund sent Hays a letter demanding that he or any group supporting him cease using LaPierre’s image or any quotes from NRA communications in campaign material.

TV Reruns

The final flurry of ads also included plenty of false or misleading claims that we already have debunked.

In the North Carolina Senate race, a new ad from the Senate Majority PAC says Republican Thom Tillis “cut education to the bone” as state House speaker, echoing an earlier claim we wrote about that Tillis cut education spending by $500 million. The fact is that state spending on public schools (K-12) has gone up $660 million since Tillis was elected House speaker, from $7.15 billion in 2010-2011 to $7.81 billion for 2013-2014. It’s true that state spending has not kept up with growing enrollment. Also, state spending on benefits has cut into classroom spending. Yes, classrooms have felt the squeeze. But he hasn’t “cut” education spending.

A new ad titled “Stopwatch” from the conservative American Future Fund reprises the claim that freshman Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon has sponsored only one bill that was signed into law. But, as we found, all 10 senators who came into office in January 2009 have a similar record: Two senators sponsored two bills each that became law; four senators, including Merkley, had one become law; and four senators had none. It’s just how things work in Senate, where committee chairs and ranking committee members stand the best chance of getting their bills passed into law.

In Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, the House Majority PAC has a new ad titled “Dishonest” that says Rep. Steve Southerland voted to “end Medicare’s guaranteed benefits.” That is a popular refrain in Democratic ads. It is a reference to Southerland’s vote on April 15, 2011, for a nonbinding budget resolution authored by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan. Ryan’s budget called for changes to Medicare, but his Medicare proposal has changed substantially in subsequent budgets. It now proposes phasing in a government-subsidy program in which future beneficiaries pick from traditional Medicare or private plans, which must offer the same benefits as traditional Medicare.

Likewise, the Republicans just can’t let go of the misleading claim that the Affordable Care Act “cuts Medicare” by $716 billion. The National Republican Senatorial Committee trots out the figure in a new ad — appropriately titled “Wrong” — that attacks Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, the Senate candidate in Iowa. The fact is that the Affordable Care Act slows the future growth of Medicare spending (as opposed to cutting current spending) to prolong the life of the program. The vast majority of the “cuts” come from future payments to hospitals and insurance carriers. The ACA says benefits provided in the traditional Medicare program can’t be cut.

— Robert Farley, Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson