Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Negative Ads: an Autopsy

For a political junkie, the last week of a campaign is like Thanksgiving dinner – all the negative ads and political maneuvering you can fill your belly with.  Of course, as is the case every election, you have the following cycle:

1.  Third party groups run negative ads.

2.  Newspapers call for elimination of third party ads.

3.  Newspapers fail to educate public as to the accuracy of these supposedly “toxic” third party ads.

As I’ve pointed out time and time again, newspapers merely cheerlead for campaign finance reform because eliminating free speech for these third party groups enhances the print media’s clout during elections.  These papers crying and whining about how “poisonous” these ads are is a farce meant to cloak their true intention – shutting down political debate outside their pages.

For example, numerous negative ads are being run in the Madison TV market by groups like WEAC, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, and the Coalition for America’s Families.   Some of them make dubious claims, which supposedly lead to this “toxic” political environment.  You would think that the Wisconsin State Journal or any of the local TV stations would expend some of their time setting the record straight when these ads – which are so dangerous for democracy – run in their area.  Yet a Lexis Nexis search shows that the State Journal hasn’t written a single, solitary word on any of the ads.  No fact finding to set the record straight, no check as to their accuracy.  So basically, newspapers argue these ads need to be regulated by the government because the papers themselves are too disinterested in actually researching the claims they make.

Well, fear not, political folks. has posted a few of the local Assembly ads being run, and I’ll go through a couple of them to explain some of the sourcing used in the ads.  It’s the least I can do for democracy.

Also, I noticed that some of the ads on the Wispolitics site have now been replaced by cleaner versions without citations of their sources.  I’m guessing the Greater Wisconsin Committee saw the ads up there, and sent Wispolitics footnote-free versions of their ads precisely to keep people from me from doing the kind of source analysis I’m about to do.  They are apparently aware of how bogus some of their own claims are.  Fortunately, I kept the original versions with their citations.

Just for clarification before I begin: there are several themes that are going to pop up in a few of these ads.  First, there’s the concept of the “procedural” vote.  These votes generally occur during the budget, when an agreement has been made between the Assembly and Senate on a final package.  The budget goes to the floor of the respective houses for a vote, then is barraged by amendments by the minority party – all of which inevitably fail, since passing any of them would break the tenuous negotiation between the houses.  As it turns out in the Assembly, Democrats have been in the minority for 14 years – so they’ve gotten pretty good at offering amendment after amendment, solely for the purpose of aiding third party groups in writing campaign ads when Republicans inevitably have to vote them down.  (Of course, editorial boards always accuse the Legislature of “wasting time” when they pass bills with which they disagree – such as guaranteeing citizens’ constitutional rights to bear arms – but they don’t consider it to be wasting time when a minority party spends hours and hours offering up doomed amendments solely for the purpose of writing campaign ads.)

Also, many of the ads cite votes taken on the budget – as everyone knows, the budget contains thousands of provisions, some good, some bad.  But in the end, a legislator gets one final vote up or down.  So even if a budget is 98% good, some group will find the 2% bad on which to run a 30 second TV ad.  For instance, State Representative Sheldon Wasserman is running an ad against Senator Alberta Darling in which he criticizes a 1995 (!) budget vote that raised gas taxes – without mentioning the fact that the budget also cut property taxes by $1 billion by increasing state aids to school districts.  Seemed to have left that part out.

I should also note that this analysis is really meant more as an example of how facts are twisted in campaign ads.  I doubt more than 20 people know or care who “Doc” Hines is – but the ad being run against him is instructive as to how these claims are put together.

So let’s get started:

Greater Wisconsin Committee: “What’s Up Doc? Version 2” (click to view)

“Doc Hines voted against closing corporate tax loopholes”

The ad leads off with the most puzzling claim of all: it cites Hines’ vote for the budget adjustment bill on May 14th of this year as proof that he voted “against closing corporate loopholes.”  But the only vote Hines took on that day was for the bill in its final form – the same form that the Democratic senate had passed a day earlier, and virtually the same form that Democratic Governor Jim Doyle signed into law five days later.  If Doc Hines voted against closing corporate tax loopholes because of the budget adjustment bill, then so did every Democrat in the state senate (except Tim Carpenter).

What it appears they are trying to do is to point out that an earlier Senate version of the budget adjustment bill contained a provision called “combined reporting,” (p. 50) which amounts to a $130 million tax increase on companies that do business outside the state.  But since the Assembly voted on their version of the adjustment bill first, they couldn’t get a clean shot at Hines for removing the provision – so they did the best they could by fabricating a phantom vote.  But, as noted, it was the (horrible) final version of the budget on which everyone seemed to agree.

“Doc Hines voted against making big oil pay its fair share.”

During the 2007 budget, Governor Doyle introduced a budget provision to tax oil companies on their gross receipts.  As the Fiscal Bureau stated and as our WPRI report shows, this “oil tax” would have led to a five to seven cent increase in the cost of gas per gallon.  So it wouldn’t have been “big oil” paying the tax, it would have been consumers, who were already struggling with prices at the pump.  Miraculously, gas prices have now dropped without phony punitive measures against oil companies.  Thanks, big oil!

Citing this vote is also a bit of a procedural trick – the Senate passed their version of the bill that included the oil tax, and sent the bill over to the Assembly.  The Assembly then voted on their version of the bill, which didn’t include the gas tax.  So the vote Hines took wasn’t to affirmatively remove the gas tax – it was simply for their alternative plan that didn’t include it.

“Doc Hines voted for more tax breaks for the wealthy.”

For this, they cite Hines’ vote on Assembly Bill 47, which provided an income tax credit for people with health savings accounts.  The bill doesn’t say anything about income limits or who the tax is targeted to – it merely updates state law to match the federal law which already provides a tax incentive for HSAs.  To claim that a tax credit for health expenses is a “tax break for the wealthy” is well beyond a stretch.

Doc Hines voted against property tax relief.”

For this, they cite another procedural vote on Assembly Bill 452, the “Homeowners Property Tax Credit” bill, which would have exempted the first $60,000 of an individual’s home from taxation.  The vote wasn’t on the bill itself, but on whether Democrats should be allowed to pull the bill to the floor for a vote.  Several years ago, Democrats trotted this idea out as part of their “HOPE” plan.  They realized at the time that if they exempted properties from taxation, they would have to raise state taxes to pay local governments for the loss in revenue.  So as part of the original plan, they funded the credit by charging a legislative committee with picking out sales taxes to raise to fund the plan.  Realizing that idea was a dud, they came back this session and wrote a bill giving the credit without the commensurate tax increase – showing that this bill is merely a campaign talking point, not a serious attempt at keeping down property taxes.  The Fiscal Bureay has even challenged its constitutionality, pursuant to the uniformity clause.  But, it ended up in an ad, so mission accomplished.

“Doc Hines voted for raising drug costs 33% for seniors.”

This one is rich.  In 2003, the state’s Seniorcare program that provided nearly-free prescription drugs for seniors was in the red.  As part of the 2003-05 budget, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee raised the co-pay for name brand prescription drugs from $15 to $20 to keep the plan solvent.  Generics were untouched.  So this $5 increase, applied to name brand drugs for the relatively small number of the elderly in the Seniorcare program, tucked in a budget of 1,000 other items, became “raising drug costs 33% for seniors.”  Never mind that they were saving hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars by being able to enroll in this taxpayer-subsidized program.

And it gets even better.  As part of the budget he introduced, Governor Doyle increased (p. 372) the prescription drug copayment for individuals in the MA program from $1 to $3.  The final version of the budget Hines voted for went along with Doyle’s proposal – thus the claim in the ad that Hines voted for “tripling the drug costs on working families.”

Finally, it should be noted that Governor Doyle himself, in the same budget, increased the program enrollment fee from $20 to $30 – a “33% increase” for seniors.

I think you can see now why the GWC didn’t want this ad online.

Ad #2: WEAC: Hixon/Towns

“Kim Hixon fought to increase job training programs that help workers get through tough economic times.”

The ad references Assembly Amendment 1 to Assembly Substitute Amendment 1 to Senate Bill 40 on July 10th of 2007.  But Hixon voted against this amendment.  One is left to wonder how that is “fighting to increase job training programs.”  Later, Hixon voted for the final version of the budget on October 23rd.

“Debi Towns has protected big oil and corporations from paying their fair share of taxes, shifting the burden on to families and seniors.”

The citation here is difficult to read, but presumably it’s the same stuff about big oil and corporations that they tried to hit Doc Hines with.  However, they do cite a “report” by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, which we here at WPRI exposed as completely fraudulent over a year and a half ago.  They would have been on more solid footing citing a Garfield comic.

Ad #3: WEAC: Ripp/O’Neil

This one is outstanding in that it doesn’t make a single criticism of Keith Ripp – only that he’s supported by horrible Assembly Republicans.  So, because he is also a Republican, they can then conveniently pivot and throw all the nonsensical trash at him that they want, even though he doesn’t have a single vote in the legislature to criticize.

To wit:

Assembly Republicans fought against expanding affordable health care.”

Two citations here:  One is 2005 Assembly Bill 834, which says (and I am not making this up:)

This bill states that “In the 2007-08 legislative session, the legislature shall introduce, and by January 1, 2008, shall pass, a bill that does the following:” 1)assures that at least 98 percent of Wisconsin residents have health care coverage within two years after enactment of the bill into law, and 2) reduces the costs associated with providing health care to residents of Wisconsin, excluding the costs of public assistance programs, by 15 percent within two years after enactment.

So there you have it – they just write a bill that says the Legislature has to provide universal health care in two years, and they call it a plan.  That is the “expanded” health care coverage bill opposed by Assembly Republicans.  Can they also write a bill mandating the Brewers make it back to the playoffs next year?  Thanks, Assembly Democrats.

The second citation is a little murkier.  It’s the aforementioned Assembly version of the 2007-09 budget.  And, as with the case of Doc Hines, it looks like they are hitting Assembly Republicans (and therefore Keith Ripp, who was probably out buying a vacuum cleaner while all this was going on) for not adopting the Senate version of the budget, which included… drumroll… the good ol’ Healthy Wisconsin $15.2 billion tax hike for government run health care.  Certainly something Trish O’Neil wants to be associated with, right?  (See next ad.)

Oh, and Trish O’Neil is going make sure we have good jobs and renewable energy and all that.  How do I know?  Well, they put her campaign website address on there.

Ad #4:  Coalition for America’s Families: Trish O’Neil/Illegal Alien Health Care

This ad makes three claims:

1.  Healthy Wisconsin provides health care for illegal aliens

2.  Healthy Wisconsin provides health care for people who don’t live in Wisconsin

3.  Trish O’Neil supports Healthy Wisconsin.

The response to these three points, in order are: It does, it does, and she does.  Or at least she did.

As explained by Deb Jordahl on this blog a few days ago:

Dane County candidates Trish O’Neil and John Waelti are likewise feeling the heat. O’Neil, who told Wisconsin Eye she thought Healthy Wisconsin was a good place to start is now saying claims of her support for the plan are utterly false. O’Neil is also endorsed by fellow nurse and Healthy Wisconsin champion Senator Judy Robson. Robson said, “I look forward to having her in the legislature so that together we can pass the necessary legislation to assure all people access to quality, affordable healthcare.”

In fact, several Assembly and Senate candidates are moonwalking away from Healthy Wisconsin as if it were a poisonous jellyfish in their pants.  Democrats have actually sent out their team of lawyers in an attempt to get the ads pulled from TV stations across the state.

Democrats have offered several reasons why these ads are false, yet none of them contradict the basic facts in the ad.  Perhaps it is a stretch to say Healthy Wisconsin is “Trish O’Neil’s plan.”  But she did say Healthy Wisconsin is “a good place to start.” (Geez – if a universal single-payer statewide program that doubles the state budget is “a start,” what is the next step? Universal pedicures?)

Of course it is impossible for me to stay unbiased on this issue, as we here at WPRI were the first ones to bring up the issue of health care migration, a la welfare benefits.  So consider that built-in bias in this analysis.

So there you have it – a fact-based analysis of the claims made in four ads running on TV right now.  There are certainly more than can be fact-checked, but I’m sure the local media will take my idea and run with it.

There’s no question these groups have the right to run these ads.  If the First Amendment means anything, it is to protect unpopular political speech like these campaign spots.  But it is incumbent upon media and bloggers to dig deeper to explain what’s going on in these ads.  When a local newspaper complains about ads but doesn’t rectify their effect, they are just as complicit in the “toxic” political climate which they decry.

May God bless our democracy.  (Waving flag.)

UPDATE:  Wispolitics Adwatch restored the versions of the Greater Wisconsin Committee ads that were missing the citations.

1 Comment

  1. Hear Trish O’Neil endorse Healthy Wiscosnin, as first proposed by John Erpenbach in her own voice!

    On August 8th, 2008 on 92.1 FM Trish O’Neil voiced her support of Healthy Wisconsin
    Lee: Where does Trish O’Neil stand on Healthy Wisconsin?

    Trish: “Well, I’ll tell ya Lee. Healthy Wisconsin sounds like an ideal solution to the problem of the under and uninsured here in the state of Wisconsin.”
    “Unfortunately it didn’t go anywhere. It had to be taken out of the budget. Will it be brought back? I couldn’t really say. However, this would be my hope is that it would be brought back as a least a starting point from which the state legislature could then work on the solution to the under and uninsured here in Wisconsin.”

    Lee: Would state Assemblywomen O’Neil support Healthy Wisconsin as it was first presented by author Senator Erpenbach?

    Trish: “I think it’s a great idea.”

    Lee: As a RN, you think this is a great idea.

    Trish: “Definitely.”

    Go towards the end of the audio for her interview:,_M-F_@_6am

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