Pro-Alito Ads Target Two Senate Dems
Seeking to capitalize on what they believe was Democrats' poor performance during last week's confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr., a conservative soft-money group is launching television ads against South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson and North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad this week designed to sway the two lawmakers' votes on the nominee and also soften them up for their future reelection races.
The ads, which are being funded by Coalition for Fair Judiciary, will run statewide in both Dakotas and cost the group "six figures" combined, according to Keith Appell, a spokesman for the group. The coalition is a 501(c)(4) group, meaning that it does not need to disclose either its sources of funding or disbursements. Appell's firm -- Creative Response Concepts -- handled the public relations for the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ads against John Kerry in 2004.
"The strategy of the pro-Alito coalition all along has been to emphasize to red state Democrats that you can either stand with the rest of America or stand with Ted Kennedy," said Appell.
Democrats retort that both Johnson and Conrad voted to confirm John Roberts as Supreme Court chief justice, a vote that gives both men "running room" on Alito, according to one Democratic Party strategist.
The ad targeting Johnson and Conrad was still in production as The Fix went to press with this post, but the content was expected to feature a number of editorial board endorsements for Alito's confirmation followed by a question of whether the two senators stand with their constituents or with Kennedy -- the liberal lion as beloved among Democratic loyalists as he is disdained by the Republican base. Neither Democrat has announced where he stands on Alito's confirmation but both represent states that went overwhelming for President Bush in 2004.
Appell characterized the ads -- being produced by Republican media consulting firm Sandler-Innocenzi -- as the "initial phase of a larger campaign," adding: "If liberals like Ted Kennedy continue to make this an election year issue, this campaign will expand much larger and wider." Other states mentioned as potential targets include Arkansas (Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor) and Florida (Sen. Bill Nelson is up for reelection this year).
A high-level Republican operative, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the strategic goals behind the ads, said they are backed by a belief that Democrats mishandled the Alito confirmation and in doing so have created a political opening for the GOP.
"Democrats have an enormous vulnerability there," said the operative. "The reality of what they did -- at the beck and call of liberal interest groups -- is unacceptable to the vast majority of voters in red America."
The source added that the blueprint being used against Conrad and Johnson is born of the success of a similar strategy used against then Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in the run-up to his 2004 reelection race. In that contest, a bevy of conservative interest groups ran ads on and off for several years painting Daschle as the chief obstructionist to Bush's legislative priorities in an attempt to weaken him in a state that voted for Bush by a 60 percent to 38 percent margin in 2004.
Daschle went on to lose to John Thune by 3,000 vote margin, a victory Republicans credit to their extended campaign to paint him outside of the state's mainstream.
Steve Hildebrand, Daschle's campaign manager in 2004, argued that the ads from outside groups had little effect on the ultimate outcome. "If they actually think that's why he lost, they can keep up those attacks," said Hildebrand.
Conrad is up for reelection in November but faces no major Republican opponent after the party failed to lure Gov. John Hoeven (R) into the contest. Johnson will stand for reelection in 2008 after surviving a near-death political experience against Thune in 2002.
January 19, 2006; 6:23 PM ET
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