frank-caractureNevada Senate Candidates In 24-Hour Attack Mode
By Frank X. Mullen

The U.S. Senate race in Nevada is getting nationwide attention while an uncivil war of words between Sen. Dean Heller and challenger Rep. Jacky Rosen bombards the airwaves and the internet.

“They don’t talk about the issues; it’s all about the negative crap,” says Fred Lokken, professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. “God forbid they talk about the issues and say where they stand on things and let us make an intelligent decision… (But) that’s the level of politics we have now.”

For nearly two years, the words “most vulnerable Republican incumbent up for reelection in 2018” has become part of Heller’s name in news reports. That’s because he’s the only GOP senator up for reelection in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Polls indicate the race is a dead heat, with the two candidates about a point apart, well within the polls’ margin of error.

The statewide battle of accusations and images began quietly in June, when Heller released an ad touting his efforts for veterans. Rosen then ran a Spanish-language ad focusing on her support for immigrants and her willingness to oppose President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

By July, the gloves were off: first Rosen, then Heller, made statewide ad buys for commercials that impugned the other’s character. Rosen’s most persistent and memorable ads feature a “fan man” — a fabric tube resembling a stick man who writhes, bucks and twists as air is blown through it. The narrator dubs Heller “Senator Spineless” for voting in 2017 to repeal Obamacare after standing with Gov. Brian Sandoval and pledging not to take insurance coverage away from vulnerable Nevadans.

Heller defends his vote because he says the failed “skinny repeal” of Obamacare would have left the state’s Medicaid expansion in place, but Rosen accuses the incumbent of bending to Trump’s will after the president pressured him on national television. Variations of the “Senator Spineless” ads run daily in prime time slots on TV and swarm people’s social media feeds.

“The internet ads are following almost instantaneous data about who to target,” Lokken says. “Television ads reach a much older audience, the ones most likely to vote. The TV ads often depend on fear and are almost like movie trailers now, with the ominous voice-over and stark images… They are aiming at a younger population with the internet ads.”

Heller’s (and pro-Heller political action committee’s) commercials accuse Rosen of lying about her business experience, doing nothing in her single term in the House and ignoring veteran’s issues while cozying up to the Hollywood elite, particularly Jane Fonda. Fonda is a lightning rod for some older voters who recall her wartime visit to North Vietnam as a peace activist.

The ads accuse Rosen of missing a vote on a veteran’s bill so that, as Heller says in the commercial, she “could break bread with Hanoi Jane Fonda.” One image in the ad shows Fonda (in Hanoi) and Rosen (in Las Vegas) in nearly identical poses, hands crossed over their hearts as though they are each having a wonderful time.

That ad, aimed at older voters and veterans, is effective on TV, Lokken says.

Rosen’s resume is another of Heller’s favorite targets. Early on, Rosen ran an ad playing up her experience building a consulting business 20 years ago in Las Vegas, but the Reno Gazette-Journal found no evidence of her having a business license, a building or any employees. Heller released an ad calling Rosen’s business “imaginary.”

Rosen responds that no business license was needed for freelance consulting and employees of Southwest Gas have confirmed Rosen was a computer programming consultant for the utility.

The TV and web ads for both candidates feature allegations presented as facts. Some social media providers check ads for false claims, but Lokken says it’s up to voters to dig deeper to separate the truth from the lies. “It’s the individual’s responsibility to make that determination,” he says, but most people don’t do the legwork. “We have the responsibility to be vigilant, to be skeptical, but I think we’ve lost that quality a long time ago. That’s been drowned out by social media, by infinite number of websites. Now we’re being manipulated.”

Manipulation is expensive. Rosen is raising more money and spending it faster than Heller, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Rosen raised about $3.5 million in campaign donations from April through June, while Heller collected about $2.4 million over the same period. But Heller had a bigger bankroll to start: in July, Heller reported about $6 million in his campaign accounts compared with Rosen’s $3.8 million.

A review of Facebook ads by the Las Vegas Review Journal showed Rosen’s campaign far outpaced Heller’s in placing ads. By the end of July, the “Jacky Rosen for Nevada” page had run 350 ads since May, while Heller’s campaign bought 220 ads. The Rosen campaign bought 130 Facebook ads in July alone, the newspaper found, while Heller’s campaign paid for just 76.

In today’s digital media landscape, the ads can be targeted at specific demographic and ideological slices of the electorate and such messages are expected to proliferate as Election Day nears.

“When Nevada voters stop responding to attack ads, candidates will stop running them,” Lokken says.