‘Shock-and-awe’ barrage of negativity decides race

So the 1st District’s Congresslady is going back to Washington after directing a merciless shock-and-awe bombardment of explosive charges against an opponent who she believed was gaining on her. Never has such a massive barrage of negation been fired in a state where negative political advertising, not so long ago, was shunned by both parties.

While the recent gubernatorial race featured a few unwelcome examples of this new genre, none reached the intensity of the successful effort by Chellie Pingree — and her deep-pocketed friends and allies — to repel the challenge of Dean Scontras.

In the last few days before the election, the Pingree campaign directed a furious broadside of negative ads at Scontras. Hardly a radio or TV station break went by without the audience being subjected to allegations questioning Scontras’ motives, his competence or worse.

Such ads may be despicable, but the Pingree forces demonstrated once again that if enough charges are fired — and they are ugly enough — they work. The proof: Pingree broke away from a virtual tie into a big lead only after her ads started running. As a result she will soon be jetting off to Washington again although this time she will be merely a frustrated “progressive” backbencher as Republicans call the shots in the U.S. House. (Who says there’s no justice?)

However, the problem about negative advertising remains and is obviously growing. How much more of this nasty stuff can the electoral system stand? It’s hard to blame voters who fall victim to spurious allegations that are incessantly pounded into their ears during lunch time or the drive home. When enough mud is thrown, a certain amount sticks — even when voters have come to realize that most negative ads are less informative than garbage.

Although political negativism has only lately moved into the state, Mainers who live in areas served by Massachusetts and New Hampshire radio and TV already know how bad it can get. Many have been subjected to the most vicious examples for many years.

During the recent Bay State campaign it appears that no negative ad was too inane or too loathsome to be effective. One of the silliest clips had the camera panning across a huge ocean liner filled with people as the voice-over announcer accused the GOP candidate of shipping jobs overseas. “Bye, bye jobs,” the announcer intones as the ship heads out to sea.

This outsourcing theme was standard fare for every Democratic candidate who had nothing positive to boast about. But insipid as the message seems, it (along with a large passel of more appalling ads) appeared to work for Gov. Deval Patrick who easily won reelection.

New Hampshire offered scary proof that the negative advertising worm can infect both parties.The U.S. Senate campaign of Kelly Ayotte, a rising young GOP star, was nearly derailed in the Republican primary by a vicious Pingree-style barrage orchestrated by a millionaire opponent.

Although Ayotte was just barely able to survive the primary mud-slinging, she recovered and coasted to an huge victory in last Tuesday’s general election. But as Dean Scontras can attest, the good guys don’t always win.

Desperate candidates know that. So when Chellie Pingree found her ambitions threatened, she and her hardball advisors sought refuge in negativity. They had the money and spent what was necessary to bury her opponent with a overwhelming volley of innuendo. Libby Mitchell’s friends in the Maine Democratic party undertook a similar effort against Eliot Cutler but it lacked sophistication and, apparently, financing and failed.

When the fires of confusion are stoked by as much cash as the Pingree campaign could afford to inject, negative advertising too often comes off as a convincing winner. If that continues to be the case, the voting public will eventually be the real loser.

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