The battle for the Senate majority is turning nasty, especially in the three battle ground states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nevada, where candidates are facing a barrage of negative ads and social media attacks on their character and fitness for office.
Democratic and Republican strategists as well as nonpartisan experts say the vitriol on the campaign trail has been remarkable, observing that while negative campaign tactics are nothing new, the 2022 battle for the Senate has taken it to a new level.
“The nastiness of all races, including any top-ticket races, is pretty nasty right now,” said Kami Dempsey-Goudie, a Nevada-based political consultant who mainly works with Democrats but has worked with Republicans as well. “The negative ads are the loudest they’ve ever been.”
“You turn on the TV, it’s overwhelming with the negativity,” she added.
The negativity went off the charts at a weekend rally in Nevada for Senate GOP candidate Adam Laxalt, where Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) declared Democrats, including his Senate colleagues, as “pro-crime.”
Tuberville then made a remark widely described as racist about reparations for slavery in which he said Democrats who back such payments want them because they think people who committed crimes are owed it.
“They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that. Bullshit!” Tuberville said at the even he attended with former President Trump in Minden, Nev. The line was cheered by the crowd in attendance.
Tuberville’s remarks overshadowed the general nastiness of a race that could determine the Senate majority.
Crime is a big focus in the Nevada fight. The Club for Growth super PAC unveiled a new $2 million ad buy on Spanish television and radio declaring incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) as “so weak on crime it’s dangerous.”
Cortez Masto is punching back by framing Laxalt as an extremist who helped incite the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by embracing Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud, which she says her opponent is prepared to deploy again if he loses next month.
She also has launched her own ad slamming Laxalt as someone who would not “fight for a woman’s right to make our own health care decisions.”
She has attacked her opponent on a personal level, pointing to his arrest records as a teenager for assaulting a police officer, his academic record of “flunking out of college” and generally for being a child of privilege whose father was a lobbyist.
Jon Ralston, the CEO of The Nevada Independent, said “plenty of Senate races have been nasty” and “the crime attack” on Cortez Masto is not unexpected because “fear-mongering can be effective.”
But he said the Club for Growth’s massive ad buy on Spanish-language television and radio is “the real news here” because Cortez Masto was the first Latina ever elected to the Senate and if “she can’t win the Hispanic vote by a landslide, it’s game over.”
The Pennsylvania Senate race has also risen above others in its nastiness.
Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is bashing his Republican opponent, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, as a quack with stronger ties to New Jersey than Pennsylvania.
Republicans are responding by needling Fetterman over his health after he suffered a stroke in May.
“They’re brutal. The stakes are so big, control of the Senate is at hand,” said Terry Madonna, the longtime director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll who now serves as a senior fellow for political affairs at Millersville University.
Fetterman’s latest ad mocks Oz as the real-life incarnation of Dr. Nick, the quack doctor from “The Simpsons.”
“They say the Simpsons always predict the future — and once again, they nailed it,” Fetterman tweeted.
Republicans, meanwhile, are raising questions about Fetterman’s physical fitness for office and demanding he release his health records.
Oz released his own medical records late last month to put a spotlight on Fetterman’s health problems.
The Republican National Committee is quick to tweet out audio and video clips of Fetterman’s misstatements or mispronunciations to highlight his trouble speaking since suffering a stroke.
And Republicans have steadily pounded away at Fetterman’s record on crime, raising his record as chairman of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons and his support for clemency for two brothers, Dennis and Lee Horton, who were sentenced to long prison terms for second-degree murder.
The brothers got out of prison last year and joined Fetterman’s campaign as field organizers. Oz has called on Fetterman to fire them.
Madonna observed that Oz, who became famous on television, and Fetterman, who is known for his iconoclastic wardrobe and facial hair, are both personality-driven candidates. So it makes sense for opponents to try to tear them down personally, he said.
“This Senate race is to a great degree driven by personality. You have Oz, who didn’t live in this state, as Dr. Hollywood,” he said, summarizing the attacks on Oz who is now “viewed more unfavorably than favorably by the voters in the state.”
“Then you have this other person who’s 6-foot-8, who wears hoodies and baggy shorts,” he added, describing Fetterman’s appearance.
Republicans in turn have tried to exploit Fetterman’s appearance by depicting him as an overgrown teenager who has had to rely on his parents financially until his late 40s.
“There’s been enough in each of their backgrounds for their opponent to go after them,” Madonna said.
The Wisconsin Senate race has been another morass of negativity.
As in Pennsylvania and Nevada, Republicans are shelling the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, as soft on crime.
They are banging on statements he made in support of reducing prison populations and redirecting or reducing police funding.
Barnes has fought back by accusing incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of sympathizing with the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 — using a similar line of attack that Cortez Masto employed against Laxalt.
“I won’t be lectured about crime from somebody who supported a violent insurrection that left 140 officers injured,” Barnes tweeted after facing off against Johnson in their first debate Friday. “It’s very hypocritical for Ron Johnson [to] want to bring up crime.”
Standing only a few feet away from his rival on the debate stage, Barnes condemned the U.S. Senate as “broken” and called Johnson “one of the worst parts of a broken system” and “a person who has been in it for himself and his wealthy donors.”
Johnson and allied Republican groups, meanwhile, are driving down Barnes’s favorable rating by carpet-bombing the state with negative ads defining him as soft on crime.
Republicans are linking Barnes to former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin (D), a prominent reform-minded prosecutor, by circulating a photo of Boudin at a Barnes fundraiser.
The Wesleyan Media Project found that 90 percent of the ads aimed at helping Johnson are focused on attacking Barnes, who called the barrage “an unprecedented amount of negative spin against me.”
Brandon Scholz, a Republican strategist based in Wisconsin, said the race has gotten nastier as Election Day has gotten closer.
“Messaging gets aggressive, media buys are up. You start to see a split between those races that are very competitive and have a lot of resources and those that just didn’t make it,” he said. “They can be very aggressive in messaging, they can be very hard-hitting.
“It might make some people feel uncomfortable,” he added, noting that Johnson is leading Barnes by only 1 percentage point in the latest CBS News-YouGov poll.
“Whether you’re attacking your opponent or you’re pushing your stuff, it’s all about driving the base,” he added.