Give the Charlie Summers campaign credit for diligent research. To back up the claim that their chief opponent, independent Angus King, is a hypocrite, they have unearthed a negative ad from King’s 1994 race for the Blaine House, in which the then-upstart challenger compared front-running opponent Joe Brennan to the Mummy.

You might think from their outrage at this 18-year-old body-blow against a revered former governor that the Summers campaign would be against all negative ads, but think again.

Their attack against King is really a defense of a negative ad that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been running during NBC’s Olympics coverage, which caricatures King’s own record as governor, complete with cartoons and funny music.

So this is not really an attack on attack ads, but an everybody-does-it excuse, with a few punches landed in the clinch by saying King’s current stance on negative campaigning is an example of hypocrisy.

“When he’s down in the polls, negative ads are great, but when he’s holding a lead he wants to change the rules,” Lance Dutson, Summers’ campaign manager, said Monday.

It’s easy to dismiss this exchange as a mid-summer attention grab without any real substance. But campaigns use negative ads because they work, and why they work is something we should not take lightly.

The Chamber ad cherry-picks facts from the King era that create a picture that is at odds with what most Mainers who were around during the 1990s remember. The specifics may be narrowly true, but the lack of context makes it look as though the King era was a bad time for Maine business, when it was really a period of strong growth.

But the ads are not really about economics, they are about knocking King off the pedestal that comes with his 60 percent favorable poll ratings and they aim to make him into something people can laugh at. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the ’90s were good for business or bad for business, as long as King’s image is sullied.

This is nothing new, as the Summers campaign research shows.

What has changed is that there is likely to be more of this stuff during this election cycle than Maine voters have ever seen. The Supreme Court opened the floodgates allowing money to flow into these races with little accountability, and Congress has done nothing to set things right. So we are depending on the campaigns to show some restraint.

To the extent they can control these messages, they should. Someone has to win these races, and if the last candidate standing has been turned into a joke by campaign professionals, the winners are less likely to be able to do the job Americans need them to do.

 


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