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'Whore' And 'Hicky': How Words Can Unravel A Campaign Before The Election

Oct 8, 2010

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There are clear themes in this year's midterm election.

If you are a Republican, it's a referendum on not only the past 19 months of the Obama administration, but also the last four years of Democratic control of Congress.

If you are a Democrat, it's a choice between the Bush approach and the Obama approach, and what things were like before 2008 and 2006.

Polls indicate, to a varying degree, that the Republicans are winning the argument.

But we need to remember that there's always the unanticipated stuff that comes up, like a fired housekeeper, that throws you off your balance.  What the voters are saying on Oct. 8 may not be the same thing they will say on Nov. 2.

Two things of that sort in recent days come to mind.

There is, or should I say, there was an ad running on West Virginia TV paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.  It shows a couple of guys sitting in a diner, drinking coffee, and complaining how Gov. Joe Manchin, the Democratic candidate for the Senate, "does whatever Obama wants."  He's "not bad as governor, but when he's with Obama ... he turns into 'Washington Joe.'"

It's not a bad commercial.  President Obama was never popular in West Virginia.  He got trounced in the Democratic primary by Hillary Clinton, 67-26 percent.  He lost to John McCain in the general election by a 56-43 percent margin.  And that's when the Obama Brand was at its peak.

So linking Manchin, the popular Democratic governor, to Obama is (1) not a stretch and (2) an effective strategy.  Some polls show the GOP nominee, businessman John Raese, actually ahead of Manchin in a state that hasn't sent a Republican to the Senate since 1956 ... even though Manchin is anti-abortion, pro-gun and the kind of social conservative that is popular in the Mountain State.  If Raese is truly ahead, this could be a bigger GOP rout than previously expected.

But, as Politico reported, the Republican consulting firm that did the ad, Jamestown Associates, sent out a casting call to a talent agency for the commercial.  Under "wardrobe," it said, "We are going for a 'Hicky' Blue Collar look. These characters are from West Virginia so think coal miner/trucker looks."  There was more:

Each character should bring a several options and stay away from all black or all white or thin stripes (thicker stripes and plaid are good)

- Clothing Suggestions:
o Jeans
o Work boots
o Flannel shirt
o Denim shirt
o Dickie's type jacket with t-shirt underneath
o Down filled vest
o John Deer hats (not brand new, preferably beat up)
o Trucker hats (not brand new, preferably beat up)
o No Thin Stripes

Humiliated, the NRSC pulled the ad.  It no longer can be found on YouTube.  But CBS News' Political Hotsheet has the ad here.

(Scroll further down in this blogpost to see an Update on this story.)

A quick unscientific study at reaction on the blogosphere has mostly been giving the Republicans the benefit of the doubt.  One wrote the following on the Politico blog:

Anyone who's been in show biz knows these calls are typically descriptive. You have to be able to describe exactly what it is you're looking for so actors have the best shot at the job, and advertisers don't waste their time.

This one is very, very typical. Unions in the business (SAG, AFTRA) know their purpose, and give actors tips on how to meet the descriptions casting calls put out. I'm surprised people would take issue with financially-pressed union actors getting these great spots. It's good money, for the actor and the union.

Not surprising that Northeast liberal elitist political consultants or media types might find "blue collar" and "beat up hat" insulting and derogatory. West Virginians are proud of their humble, salt-of-the-earth roots, including their John Deere hats and work boots.

And Greg Sargent, writing in the Washington Post, says it's unfair to blame the NRSC for this:

What seems to have happened is that the NRSC's independent expenditure unit — which is walled off from the NRSC strategic offices — asked one of its vendors to round up the actors for the ad. That vendor is Jamestown Associates, which then contacted a Philadelphia talent agency in hopes of getting actors for the ad. Someone at that talent agency — whose name is undetermined as of now — used the language in an email sent around looking for actors.

If this is the case, then the language wasn't even used by anyone at the entity that was contracted by the NRSC. As for the actors themselves, actors appear in ads on both sides — it's the "hicky" language that made this a story.

But that hasn't stopped the left from jumping all over it.  Jon Walker, writing on the Firedoglake blog, said it was time to "remind" the NRSC "that working class Americans don't like it when people call them hicks behind their backs, especially when the epithets come from out-of-state political operatives."

And the Manchin campaign demanded an apology from Raese:

John Raese and his special interest friends have insulted the people of West Virginia and need to immediately apologize. Not only have they been spending millions to try and buy this election with lies and distortions, we can now see once and for all what he and his friends really think of West Virginia and our people. It's offensive and it only proves that John Raese has spent too much time in the state of Florida, living in his Palm Beach mansion, and doesn't know, understand or respect the great people of this state, and what we stand for.

It may not matter that the Raese campaign or the NRSC never had anything to do with the "hicky" language.  The flap works well for Manchin and the Democrats, writes The Atlantic's Nicole Allen, "who have been painting Raese as a wealthy outsider disconnected from the state's working identity. The NRSC's rapid reaction also plays into the Democrats' hands, making the organization seem disconnected from on-the-ground campaign work and the needs of individual states."

UPDATE:  A look at the correspondence sent out by Jamestown Associates in search of actors for the commercial , supplied to us by the NRSC, shows absolutely no mention of the word "hicky" or anything of the sort.  It was, in fact, the talent agency that received the request from Jamestown that decided on its "hicky" language.  As NRSC executive director Rob Jesmer wrote today, "That word was written by a non-political, sub-contractor without any knowledge of any vendor paid for the NRSC."  Jesmer saved his harshest words for Politico's Mike Allen, who wrote the original story:

I have great respect for Mike Allen but he should be embarrassed that he wrote this.  We spent most of Tuesday giving him everything we could to verify that this came from an entity not associated with us.  We pleaded with him to be fair and think about the consequences of injecting this into the campaign 26 days before the election.  He knowingly disregarded this and went ahead and wrote it, breaking the cardinal rule of journalism...don't make the news, cover the news.

But Politico just cannot pass up this kind of thing; they are intensely interested in sensationalized headlines and tabloid political journalism.  As it relates to the West Virginia story, they succeeded in their endeavor.

An account of this story by the Huffington Post, no friend of the NRSC, backs up Jesmer's argument.

...

The other incident came in the California gubernatorial contest.  Democrats seemed to get an opening when it was learned that GOP candidate Meg Whitman had employed an undocumented worker for nine years and, when she learned about that person's status in 2009, she fired her on the spot.  Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate, managed to put the focus on how Whitman treats employees, thwarting Whitman's desire to talk about how she would bring jobs to California. A new poll had Brown leading the race by four points; not long ago the two candidates were tied.

But then came this.

The Los Angeles Times has revealed that in a private conversation that was inadvertently taped by a voicemail machine, Brown "can be heard referring to his Republican opponent Meg Whitman as a 'whore' for cutting a deal protecting law enforcement pensions as the two candidates competed for police endorsements":

The comment came after Brown called the Los Angeles Police Protective League in early September to ask for its endorsement. He left a voicemail message for Scott Rate, a union official. Brown apparently believed he had hung up the phone, but the connection remained intact and the voice mail machine captured an ensuing conversation between Brown and his aides.

With evident frustration, Brown discussed the pressure he was under to refuse to reduce public safety pensions or lose law enforcement endorsements to Whitman. Months earlier, Whitman had agreed to exempt public safety officials from key parts of her pension reform plan.

"Do we want to put an ad out? ... That I have been warned if I crack down on pensions, I will be - that they'll go to Whitman, and that's where they'll go because they know Whitman will give 'em, will cut them a deal, but I won't," Brown said.

At that point, what appears to be a second voice interjects: "What about saying she's a whore?"

"Well, I'm going to use that," Brown responds. "It proves you've cut a secret deal to protect the pensions."

You can hear the recording on the above-referenced Times link.

The Whitman campaign responded today:

"The use of the term 'whore' is an insult to both Meg Whitman and to the women of California. This is an appalling and unforgivable smear against Meg Whitman. At the very least Mr. Brown tacitly approved this despicable slur and he himself may have used the term at least once on this recording."

The HotAir blog had perhaps the most charitable thing to say about Brown:

Look on the bright side.  It's an improvement over Jerry Brown's earlier comment comparing Meg Whitman to Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels.

Perhaps the Brown campaign, realizing the potential for trouble, today decided to trot out the endorsement of his candidacy by the National Organization for WomenLos Angeles Times' Anthony York writes, "Coincidence? You be the judge."

(For the record, Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford "dismissed suggestions there was any connection between the timing of the endorsement and the audio tape saying, 'there's no endorsement process that can be done in a day.'")

John Wildermuth, blogging at the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests that both candidates could "be burned" by this:

The last thing Brown needs is a reputation for running a frat-boy style campaign shop where people have no problem tossing out slurs against women when they think no one — that is, female voters — is listening.

Women make up about 53 percent of the likely voters in California and typically can be trusted to lean toward Democratic candidates. But a Field Poll last month showed Brown and Whitman locked in a 41-41 dead heat, both among all likely voters and among women. Brown needs to pump up his female support to win in November and this isn't going to help.

On the other hand, Whitman has been slamming Brown as a lapdog for the state's public employee unions and painting herself as the one candidate who can save California financial future by cracking down on those overpaid — and over-pensioned — union sorts.

But the same diatribe that led to the "whore" insult also had Brown, in that private, unscripted moment, saying he was going to lose an important endorsement because he wasn't willing to give a special pension break to a law enforcement union. More importantly, it didn't show him backing away from his stand, even if it cost him the endorsement.

Which goes to show you that, in the West Virginia and California campaigns — and elsewhere — nothing is certain until the voters speak, 25 days from today.

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