Attack ads are de rigueur in Senate campaigns. But a seemingly run-of-the-mill negative spot in the Missouri Republican primary recently drew an unusual amount of backlash, including from current state lawmakers and even the sitting senator the candidates are vying to challenge.
On Tuesday, Republican Senate candidate John Brunner released an attack ad against his two primary competitors — the first negative ad by a Republican against another Republican so far of the cycle — alleging that they both have cast votes to increase debt. But Brunner’s claim appears to have backfired, and Missouri lawmakers are rallying to defend former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman from the charge.
In the ad, Brunner, a businessman who ran his family’s pharmaceutical manufacturing company Vi-Jon, charges that Steelman voted as a state senator “to put Missouri billions in debt” and “backed millions in wasteful pork projects like they do in Washington.”
Steelman pushed back. In a radio appearance Wednesday, Steelman expressed disappointment that the campaign had taken a negative turn. “I was disappointed that John Brunner went negative, violating Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, especially with something that isn’t true,” Steelman said. “His ads are saying that I put the state into some kind of debt situation, which just isn’t true.” (Steelman quickly broke the 11th Commandment herself in the same interview, and went after Brunner’s own debt record. In April, she pointed out, Moody’s downgraded the credit rating for Vi-Jon, where Brunner serves as chairman emeritus of the board since stepping down as CEO in 2009.)
Patrick Tuohey, a spokesman for the Steelman campaign, told TPM that as best they understand, Brunner is attacking the annual state budgets Steelman voted for, which are, by Missouri law, balanced budgets.
The Brunner camp stuck to its guns Wednesday. “Either she’s being untruthful or she doesn’t know what she voted on,” campaign spokesman Todd Abrajano said.
Brunner’s ad prompted a boost of support for Steelman from Missouri lawmakers Thursday. In a letter sent to various media outlets Thursday morning, four former Missouri Senate appropriations committee members defended Steelman and called on Brunner to drop the attacks.
“As Republican elected officials we were disappointed and surprised by the false and absurd claims made by Mr. Brunner in his new smear ad… The claim that Mrs. Steelman put ‘Missouri billions into debt for pork projects’ by voting for the State of Missouri’s annual operating budget is completely false. The reality is that, like each of the signatories below, Mrs. Steelman has never voted for an out of balance budget or a tax increase.”
The four signatories, all Republicans and three of them Steelman supporters, ask Brunner to “retract” and “correct” his allegations against Steelman.
But Steelman got another unexpected show of support. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who will eventually run against whichever GOP contender prevails in the Aug. 7 primary, stood by Steelman in a tweet Thursday afternoon:
The Brunner campaign was not immediately available for comment.
Update Sunday 1:40 PM: The Brunner campaign responded to the points made in the letter supporting Steelman on Friday with a detailed rebuttal to the letter and on a conference call with reporters, Brunner campaign manager Jon Seaton stood by the ad:
The Brunner campaign never suggests that Sarah Steelman or her collegues did not balance the budget. The ad, and all relevant citations, simply shows that as a Senator, Treasurer Steelman voted to put the state into debt. In 2003, she did so by supporting HB 401 and HB14, which used revenue bonds to fill a shortfall in the state budget. …
Sarah Steelman spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in attacks against her Republican primary opponent during her failed gubernatorial campaign, and refused to endorse the eventual Republican nominee. For her to cite the “11th Commandment” is almost beyond the pale. Our campaign will continue to point out important differences between John Brunner’s history as a manufacturer and job creator and the records of two politicians with records of debt and wasteful spending.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.