A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The 2018 FactCheck Awards

We highlight the unique and unusual campaign videos from the midterm elections.


Summary

It is our tradition on Election Day to set aside our fact-checking role and instead highlight funny, odd and entertaining ads from the campaign cycle. These are noteworthy for reasons other than making false or misleading claims (though some may do that, too).

This year’s honorees include an ad from a candidate who did a party switch and another from the campaign that came up with the nickname “Cocaine Mitch.”

Happy voting!

Analysis

The Jeb Bush Award for Low Energy
Winner: Don Blankenship, former U.S. Senate candidate for West Virginia

In a series of ads, former Republican Senate candidate Don Blankenship appears to be vying for the moniker “low energy,” a title Donald Trump had given to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during the 2016 campaign.

Perhaps the soft banjo music playing in the background was like a lullaby, because Blankenship, the former CEO of an energy company (ha ha), showed very little enthusiasm while filming this low-budget TV ad attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, not West Virginia. (And he took the monotone approach in these two ads as well.)

Leave the kids out of this.

“Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people,” Blankenship says with a straight face and without any inflection in his voice. “By doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars.”

He goes on to say “the war to drain the swamp and create jobs for West Virginia people has begun,” and then he pledges to “beat Joe Manchin and ditch cocaine Mitch for the sake of the kids.”

In case you’re wondering, Blankenship didn’t apologize for saying “China people,” or for making those misleading claims about McConnell and his in-laws. (McConnell is married to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan.)

In the end, McConnell had a laugh. After Blankenship lost the GOP primary to his actual opponent, Patrick Morrisey, McConnell’s Senate campaign tweeted an edited image of the majority leader in a cloud of cocaine and dressed as a character from a Netflix series about drug cartels. “Thanks for playing, Don,” the graphic reads.

Biggest Dumpster Fire
Winner: Richard Painter, former U.S. Senate candidate in Minnesota

“There is an inferno raging in Washington” and in whatever fake alley this bizarre ad was filmed. Here, a very intense Richard Painter likens the government, mostly the Trump administration, to a literal dumpster fire that must be extinguished.

“Some people see a dumpster fire and do nothing but watch the spectacle,” says Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush. “Some are too scared to face the danger, or they think it will benefit them if they just let it keep on burning. Others shrug and say, ‘Oh, all this talk about dumpster fires is just fake news.’”

The ad closes with the prominent Trump critic declaring that “here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes … we know how to put out a fire.” That’s as water from (presumably) one of those lakes falls from above into the flaming garbage bin behind him.

Painter’s plan to save D.C. involved switching parties to compete in the Democratic primary against Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith. It didn’t work out. Painter’s Senate hopes were doused in August when Smith won the nomination with more than 76 percent of the vote.

The Ted Talk Award
Winner: FTC PAC

Sen. Ted Cruz is hardly tough, according to this ad in which a man seated in a diner advises the Texas Republican on how he should have responded when Trump, during the 2016 campaign, re-tweeted a meme of Cruz’s wife and suggested Cruz’s father assisted in murdering a president.

“Somebody left something on my door the other day, it said, ‘Ted Cruz, tough as Texas,’” says the man while having a good laugh. “If somebody called my wife a dog, and said my daddy was in on the Kennedy assassination, I wouldn’t be kissing their ass,” he says about Cruz, who has been on good terms with the president since the last election.

“You stick a finger in their chest and you give ‘em a few choice words,” he demonstrates. “Or you drag their ass out by the woodshed and kick their ass, Ted. Come on!”

The ad was sponsored by FTC PAC, short for Fire Ted Cruz, and it was directed by Texas’ own Richard Linklater. The star is Sonny Carl Davis, an actor who also calls the state home, and who played a similar town gossip in one of Linklater’s feature films.

Some of his other quality advice for Cruz? Be more likeable, don’t try to be funny, spend more time in Texas, and never choose White Castle over Whataburger.

The Don’t Try This at Home Award
Winner: Levi Tillemann, former candidate for U.S. House in Colorado

Levi Tillemann, who ran in the Democratic primary for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, proposed that “non-lethal self-defense tools,” like pepper spray — as opposed to guns — be given to teachers to help stop school shootings. It’s cheap, he says, “won’t accidentally kill a kid” and is powerful —  you can trust Tillemann on that.

In a graphic illustration of his point, Tillemann takes a shot of pepper spray in his eyes on camera. It may be the only campaign video this season that came with the disclaimer: “This is dangerous – do not attempt.”

It’s also painful to watch. For nearly 50 seconds of the video, Tillemann alternates between dunking his head in a bucket of cleansing agent and washing out his eyes with a garden hose.

“Wow, that’s intense,” he says, comparing the feeling to “lava in your eyes.”

We’ll take his word for it.

Unfortunately for Tillemann, he suffered both the “unbearable” pain of pepper spray and a loss in the Democratic primary.

The Thinking Outside the (Shoe) Box Award
Winner: Elizabeth Heng, candidate for U.S. House in California

It’s too easy (and boring) to use Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s picture in TV ads tying Democratic candidates to the House minority leader. So, at least California 16th Congressional District candidate Elizabeth Heng dared to be different this election cycle.

In this attack ad, Heng, a Republican, makes the case that Democratic Rep. Jim Costa is not only following in Pelosi’s footsteps, he’s walking, though not well, in her shoes.

These shoes were made for walking?

The ad starts with a “Saturday Night Fever”-style close-up of a pair of red high heels worn by someone who hasn’t figured out how they work. A male narrator says: “Votes against the farm bill, but supports sanctuary cities. Higher taxes, more spending, gun control and a money wasting bullet train. Allowed San Francisco environmentalists to deny us our water.”

“Nancy Pelosi?” the narrator asks. “Yep. But also, surprisingly, Jim Costa.”

The camera pans up to show that the awkward strut belongs to a Costa look-alike carrying a briefcase and decked out in a dress shirt and denim shorts.

Why is he wearing that? And where is he going? We’re not sure.

We do know Pelosi is fond of heels; she once filibustered a GOP spending bill for eight hours on the House floor standing in a pair. But that outfit? We can’t imagine she’d ever wear that ensemble to work even on the most casual of Fridays.

Best Use of a Campaign Slogan
Winner: Yatish Joshi, former candidate for U.S. House in Indiana

If it did nothing else, this TV ad/music video helped Indiana voters learn how to pronounce Yatish Joshi’s name — even if they weren’t always certain which one he was.

To be clear, Joshi is the Indian American businessman who ran for the Democratic nomination in Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District. He’s on screen early in the ad (at 0:04 and 0:07) and again at the very end (in shades) to give his approval.

The young man rapping is Blu Casey, a local rapper and activist from South Bend.

The lyrics in the main verse go like this: “You wanna be a man, gotta make a name/Say you wanna win, gotta play the game. If you wanna race, you gotta make a lane/Wanna make a difference, gotta make a change.”

But the most memorable line from the song is probably “Together, America works. Haaan!” The working together part was the campaign’s slogan, which can be seen on the signs and T-shirts being held up by people of different ages and races.

And as catchy as the song was, Joshi ended up losing the nomination after receiving about 22 percent of the vote.

The Black Sheep Award
Winner: Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona

We know a half dozen people who don’t think Paul Gosar should continue to represent Arizona’s 4th Congressional District, and they are all related to him. The Republican congressman has nine younger siblings, and six of them appeared in a series of damning ads to declare their support for his Democratic opponent, David Brill.

In the one above, Grace, a rural physician, says, “Paul Gosar the congressman isn’t doing anything to help rural America.” David, a lawyer, adds, “Paul’s absolutely not doing anything for his district.” Then, Jennifer, a medical interpreter, says: “If he actually cared about people in rural Arizona, I’d bet he’d be fighting for Social Security, for better access to health care. I bet he would be researching what is the most insightful water policy to help the environment of Arizona sustain itself and be successful.”

That’s before they, and three other Gosar siblings, reveal that Paul is their brother and they all endorse Brill, whose campaign sponsored all of the ads.

Unlike us, the congressman wasn’t really surprised. In a statement to CNN, he said, “Those of my siblings who chose to film ads against me are all liberal Democrats who hate President Trump.” However, he did express disappointment that Brill “chose to use family political differences to launch attacks” on him. The 85-year-old matriarch of the Gosar family also reportedly wasn’t happy that some of her children were in the ads.

The Mark Roberts Award for the Happiest Streaker
Winner: Amy McGrath, candidate for U.S. House in Kentucky

Amy McGrath, a retired lieutenant colonel, says that raising three young kids sometimes seems harder than being in the military, especially since one of them may have a knack for streaking.

“I flew 89 combat missions as a U.S. marine and my 90th mission is running for Congress to take on politicians who put party over country,” says McGrath, a Democrat, who’s challenging Republican Rep. Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District. “But some days, this is my toughest mission,” she confesses, as the ad cuts to three young children in the back seat of her SUV.

The ad is about health care, which McGrath says she thinks is “a fundamental right that should be guaranteed.” But the main focus is on the kids, one of whom stood out at the doctor’s office.

About to receive a shot of some kind, George, her middle child, gleefully drops his pants and is later seen running through the halls with the pixels blurring his bare parts barely able to keep up.

“I approve this message,” McGrath says, “because I’d like to see the other guy running deal with this.”

— by D’Angelo Gore and the FactCheck.org Awards Committee