All hell is breaking loose in the North Carolina and Minnesota Senate races! Three stunning lawsuits were filed today, threatening to transform the final days of campaigning into political theater: Kay Hagan is suing Elizabeth Dole, Norm Coleman is suing Al Franken for breaking campaign law, and a Texas businessman is suing a Coleman supporter, alleging that he was made to make secret payments to the Minnesota Senator.
North Carolina: Elizabeth Dole took her Senate race down the gutter yesterday by releasing an ad that attacked Kay Hagan’s connection to… atheists. In the ad’s most controversial moment, Kay Hagan’s image is juxtaposed to a female voice that says “there is no God” in what is a clear attempt to misleadingly suggest that the voice is Hagan’s.
Democrats have been highly critical of Dole’s ad and have zeroed in on that final moment as proof that Dole is playing dirty tricks, so much so that Hagan announced she would seek a cease and desist order if Dole did not pull the ad. The Dole campaign (though certainly not all Republicans) laughed at that request, and Hagan is now following up on her threat as she has filed a defamation lawsuit against her opponent for the ad’s suggestion that Hagan is an atheist.
This stunning escalation of a campaign that has slowly turned nasty over the past few months ensures that this controversy will dominate the last few days of campaigning and the results will be viewed (fairly or unfairly) as a referendum on Dole’s ads; if the Republican pulls what should be viewed as a comeback and wins, her victory will no doubt be attributed to this last-minute attack on Hagan’s religious beliefs and filed alongside Chambliss’s 2002 upset and Helms’ 1990 “white hands” triumph.
The problem for Dole is that the ad’s potential to backfire is great, particularly if Democrats are forceful enough in dismissing the claims are a desperate and misleading ploy. Sure, all negative ads thrive on publicity - but an attack that is this personal in nature can come across as desperate, and Kay Hagan is trying her best to get voters outraged.
She released a new ad in which she defends herself and showcases her Christian faith, and the controversy gives her an opportunity to inform voters that she was a Sunday school teacher (something that can always help in conservative parts of North Carolina). But the ad is as much about offense as about defense as Hagan takes an indignant tone, asking voters to stand by her side as:
And don’t forget that a huge proportion of North Carolina voters have already cast their ballot, so they cannot change their vote whatever they think of this latest back-and-forth.
Minnesota: No one saw this lawsuit coming. While Kay Hagan gave advance warning yesterday, Norm Coleman’s decision to sue Al Franken for violating state campaign law is unexpected - except for people who follow Minnesota politics closely since The Star Tribune points out that Coleman has similarly sued his opponents at the last minute in 1998 and 2002.
Coleman is taking issue with two claims made in recent Franken ads (1) the charge that he was named the “fourth most corrupt politician” and (2) the charge that Coleman lives in a practically “rent free” apartment in Washington. (The Star Tribune provides some backgrounds on both allegations.) Like the North Carolina lawsuit, it is unlikely Franken faces much legal problems, but Coleman’s action will catch all the attention over the last few days of the election.
As if the Minnesota Senate race was not confusing enough. Now, not only is it impossible to predict what effect the Barkley factor might have on the race, it is extremely difficult to get a sense of the impact this type of last minute political theatrics might have. Combined with Coleman’s decision to pull his negative ads two weeks ago (though that came after months of brutal spots airing against Franken and equally vicious NRSC spots that are still ongoing), it could allow Coleman to take the high road and convince voters that he is the cleaner campaigner - something that could be key to pulling off a victory in this three heated three-way race.
On the other hand, the risk for Coleman is that this might lead to a wave of stories about his Washington apartment. Contrary to what Coleman’s lawsuit might imply, this controversy was not pushed by the Franken campaign; it was reported in the media - and there does seem to be enough to put Coleman on the defensive in that story, as he is paying a below-the-market rate in a DC apartment, was a few months late on his payments and has not supplied proof that he has paid his share of the utilities.
To make matters even more complicated, a second lawsuit was tossed in the Minnesota Senate race today as a Texas businessman is claiming that he was made to make secret payments to Senator Coleman via his wife’s company. The buisnessman claims that a wealthy Coleman supporter forced him into this arrangement by threatening to fire him. How this plays out in the coming days will depend, of course, on how much there is behind the allegations that could put Coleman on the defensive in the campaign’s closing days.