Not all political attack ads are created equal.
A new TV ad attacking Congressman Bob Filner and paid for by San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio’s mayoral campaign has a simple message: Filner is a Democrat.
Some political observers think the ad, which connects San Diego mayoral candidate Filner to President Barack Obama, is actually a ruse to push undecided voters to the congressman.
Filner’s campaign has emphasized that he's the race's only Democrat.
That’s why Carl Luna, a political scientist at San Diego Mesa College who’s currently conducting a civility evaluation of political spots, said the new anti-Filner ad by DeMaio is atypical compared to most negative ads.
He called it “a backhanded attempt to help Filner and sink (Assemblyman Nathan) Fletcher.”
The ad targets the congressman for his Democrat-heavy voting record and his relationship with Obama. It says Filner voted with Democrats 90 percent of the time and calls him an “Obama Democrat” three times before featuring a clip of the president thanking him for his leadership on a bill that expanded benefits for military veterans and their families.
The pro-DeMaio aspect of the ad is buried, Luna said, so an uninformed viewer would glean from it only that Filner is a strong Democrat.
“You don’t bury the lead that Filner being a strong Democrat is a bad thing, and this ad definitely downplays that aspect of this being a bad thing,” he said. “Up to the final seconds, it seems like a pro-Filner ad and I don’t think that’s accidental.”
Filner’s own TV ad begins and ends with a reminder that Filner is the only Democrat in the race.
In recent polls, DeMaio has come in as the mayoral primary’s frontrunner, with Filner and Fletcher locked in a tie for second. If none of the candidates wins 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will advance to a November runoff. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis is the fourth major candidate.
DeMaio has another ad on the air attacking Fletcher for being absent on more than 70 percent of assembly votes this year.
John Dadian, a political consultant not working for any of the mayoral campaigns, said he couldn’t think of a strategy behind the ad other than to promote Filner.
“The bottom line is, there are going to be two people in November,” he said. “Since someone is going to be your opponent, I don’t know what that strategy accomplishes.”
Normally, he said, you’d expect a campaign to choose the opponent it doesn’t want to face and focus its attacks on him or her, rather than attacking two opponents simultaneously.
Fletcher dropped his affiliation with the Republican Party in late March and is now running as an independent. Before and since, he’s branded himself as a nonpartisan problem-solver, and has reached out for support to Democrats, Republicans and voters without party preference.
Filner ran a lackluster campaign early on, with many speculating that his lack of energy stemmed from a belief that as the only Democrat he’d have an easy time advancing to November.
Luna drew specific attention to the part of the ad featuring the president thanking Filner for his leadership. On-screen text during the clip reads, “Veteran’s bill signing ceremony.”
In a pro-military town like San Diego, demonstrating leadership on veteran-friendly legislation isn’t a political liability.
“I imagine if it plays enough times, it’ll hit with pro-military Democrats, so-called 'Blue Dog Democrats,'” Luna said.
A DeMaio-Filner race in November would be a simple, Republican-versus-Democrat matchup in a city that’s had Republican mayors for decades.
Against Fletcher, though, DeMaio couldn’t draw as sharp a contrast. The two legislators hold the same positions on many of the election’s major issues — including pension reform. But come November, Fletcher’s independent image might make it easier to attract votes from the left.
But Democratic Party Chair Jess Durfee rejected the idea that DeMaio is trying to push voters to Filner.
“I think Filner would frame those things a whole lot differently than DeMaio did, so I’m not going to second guess the campaign strategy,” Durfee said. “The only similarity I see is that it identifies Filner as Democrat, but every single news story that’s been written about the campaign has pointed out that he’s the only Democrat.”
While there are plenty of Democrats who might favorably view a 90 percent voting record and a relationship with Obama, there are plenty of voters who would see it as a negative too, and DeMaio might specifically be targeting those voters, Durfee said.
Ryan Clumpner, DeMaio’s campaign manager, dismissed the idea that the ad was anything other than an attempt to point out that Filner has been pursuing a tax-and-spend agenda in Washington for 20 years.
“His answers for fiscal problems are to remortgage our debt and pass it on to our children and grandchildren so we can spend more today,” he said. “I think the ad fairly and effectively points that out.”