Assessing attack ads in New Jersey congressional race

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    It’s sludge-slinging time in New Jersey, where the battle for the 3rd Congressional District seat being vacated by former Philadelphia Eagle Jon Runyan is well under way.

    It’s a sprawling district that runs from the banks of the Delaware River to the Atlantic coast, and includes much of Burlington and Ocean

    The Democrat in the race is Aimee Belgard, an attorney who was a local official in Edgewater Park Township and who is now a Burlington County freeholder. The Republican is Tom MacArthur, an independently wealthy businessman and former mayor of Randolph Township who’s already put $3 million of his own money into the race.Stinkers on the air

    There’s an attack ad from each side already on the airwaves. The one above, attacking MacArthur, is from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It casts MacArthur as a ruthless businessman who tries to profit from the misfortune of others. “MacArthur ran an insurance company accused of cheating hurricane and wildfire victims,” the announcer says in the ad.

    It’s true MacArthur ran a claims-processing firm that was sued by victims of Hurricane Ike and California wild fires. But this ad went too far and was slammed in a review by FactCheck.org. In fact, the DCCC actually ran a modified version after the FactCheck criticism (it’s the corrected one above).

    It was actually some on-screen text that had to be replaced, because it said MacArthur himself was accused of cheating victims, rather than his company. MacArthur was not named personally in the lawsuits, though he was CEO of the firm when the conduct in question occurred.

    The FactCheck review also labelled some other claims from the ad as misleading — one involving a big payout MacArthur got from the sale of the company, and another based on his opposition to Obamacare.

    MacArthur campaign consultant Chris Russell says the central accusation in the ad is trumped up.

    “Tom’s company handled millions of claims when he was CEO, and the Democrats are pulling out three, all of which were settled, and no wrongdoing was found,” Russell said. “It’s a pretty weak case.”

    Nearly all settlements in lawsuits include no findings of wrongdoing, of course.

    What about the other side?

    Counterattack

    The MacArthur campaign has an ad (see it below) attacking Belgard as a “typical dishonest politician,” recalling that she promised in her 2010 campaign she’d take no salary if elected. “But she took her taxpayer-paid salary, all of it,” an announcer says.

    The truth? Belgard did indeed promise not to take a salary when she ran for freeholder in 2010.  But she lost that election, and when she ran successfully two years later, she didn’t repeat the promise, and took the modest part-time pay that came with the job.

    “Aimee Belgard never promised to forgo her salary in 2012,” said Belgard’s campaign manager Hannah Ledford. “It’s pretty disgraceful for a mega-millionaire like him to insult her integrity for taking a $10,000 salary.”

    The MacArthur ad also quotes Belgard’s assertion in that 2010 campaign that she’d never voted to raise taxes, then notes that when Belgard was a local official in Edgewater Park, taxes did go up.

    The truth here gets a little tricky. Belgard actually voted against a 2010 township budget that included a tax hike, but voted for a resolution to seek permission for the township to exceed a state-imposed 2 percent cap on property tax hikes. And it seems clear from the numbers that taxes rose in 2011 and 2012 when Belgard was a local official there.

    I could never get the Belgard campaign to directly answer my question about whether she’d supported tax hikes in 2011 and 2012, but the information supplied by the MacArthur campaign indicates she did. In any case, those tax hikes came after her 2010 assertion that she’d never voted to raise taxes.

    The Belgard campaign noted in response to my question that taxes had gone up when MacArthur was mayor of Randolph Township.

    I haven’t looked deeply into what either candidate did as township officials, but it strikes me as sad that people who take on the responsibility of managing local government in a struggling economy will sooner or later be confronted with the need to find more revenue, and they can expect to be skewered for it the next time they run for office.

    More to come?

    It’s interesting to me that the first attack ads have focused on local matters and personal career choices rather than national issues, such as Obamacare. How much more of this we see will depend on whether the national parties come to regard the race as truly competitive.

    Ben Dworkin, director of The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said the district leans Republican, and this looks like a Republican year.

    “There are Democratic voters there,” Dworkin said. “They tend to come out in presidential years and disappear in non-presidential years.” He thinks this could be a good dry run for Belgard to make a serious go in two years, when Democrats might come out for a strong presidential candidate.

    Belgard can be expected to call MacArthur an outsider as the race unfolds, since he was mayor of a North Jersey town, and only recently moved into the district to run. He has owned a summer home in the district in Ocean County for years, and his campaign says he’s been a member of a church there and active in the community for years.

    “He might be vulnerable on that,” said Nick Acocella, editor of Politifax New Jersey, “but he’s got millions of dollars to spend, and that can wipe away a lot of vulnerability.”

    Both Dworkin and Acocella noted that the district is served by both the Philadelphia and New York media markets, which makes reaching voters on broadcast TV frightfully expensive.

    Belgard had raised more than $800,000 by midsummer, and if she manages to generates some momentum in early polls, the national Democratic Party might decide it’s worth investing big to try and snatch a Republican seat.

    If so, the fact-checkers will have a busy fall in New Jersey.

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