So what’s the silver lining in an avalanche of harsh attack ads?
Name recognition, says Republican candidate and one-time mining industry lobbyest Sydney Hay, now waging a surprisingly under-funded campaign in a crucial open congressional district that includes the Rim Country.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reportedly invested more than a million dollars in campaign ads attacking Hay for her work as a lobbyest for the mining industry and her disputed push to “privatize” Social Security.
Those independent attack ads have left Democratic nominee and former state legislator Ann Kirkpatrick free to use her sizeable war chest to focus on her career as a state representative, former prosecutor and Flagstaff law firm owner.
Kirkpatrick finished a crowded primary with five or six times as much money on hand as Hay, not even counting the huge investment in the race by the national party.
Incumbent Republican Rick Renzi decided not to run for re-election after his indictment on fraud charges for allegedly trying to influence a federal land trade to benefit a business associate.
The rural district starts at the northern limits of the Navajo Reservation, swoops down to include Flagstaff, rolls through Rim Country and plunges south to skirt the outskirts of Phoenix all the way down to Casa Grande. The seat has shifted back and forth in recent decades due to a near tossup in party registration — with the sizeable block of independents generally determining the outcome.
Independent candidate Brent Maupin, a contractor, engineer and longtime Republican, hopes independents disgusted with both parties will turn to him. He has generally avoided specifics and urged broad reforms and pragmatic, bi-partisan solutions. He supports tough campaign contribution and spending limits, free political ads on television, term limits for Congress, public disclosure of “earmark” and “pork barrel” spending bills and a much tougher congressional ethics committee.
Libertarian Thane Eichenauer has run a largely invisible campaign based mostly on Internet blogging, where he promotes a philosophy that would limit the role of government largely to national defense and a handful of other functions.
His online profile observes that his favorite quote is, “Government is the problem, freedom is the solution.” And adds, “if ever I get bummed out thinking too much about government oppression, I will visit the Libertarian entry on uncyclopedia and sing the Libertarian Song. I have seen ‘V for Vendetta’ five times and found each viewing to be insightful.”
By most measures, Kirkpatrick would seem the front-runner, in a year when Democrats are polling ahead even in many normally safe Republican districts. Kirkpatrick appears poised to dramatically outspend Hay in the general election.
Moreover, Kirkpatrick’s deep roots in Flagstaff and resumé as a legislator and a prosecutor would seem to give her an edge over Hay, who spent two decades working on conservative crusades against taxes and school choice, but also served a stint as a lobbyest for the Arizona Mining Association.
Hay maintains that the attack ads have dramatically increased her once-minimal name recognition throughout the district — and could result in a backlash in her favor. She said Republicans in the district generally run behind in the polls but ahead in the polling booth and that she’ll benefit from having Arizona Sen. John McCain at the head of the Republican ticket.
She said the attack ads won’t work in a friendly, rural district where people in small towns like Payson are nice to each other.
“This is just absolutely the kind of thing that is so disgusting to people,” she said of the ads depicting her work for the mining industry as an attempt to cover up dangerous pollution.
She dismissed Kirkpatrick’s call for bipartisan solutions to national problems “hypocrisy” in light of the attack ads funded independently by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
However, Kirkpatrick said she had a solid record of enacting bipartisan solutions in her career as a state lawmaker representing a conservative rural district centered in Flagstaff.
“That’s how I see my role as a policy maker — rejecting the partisan bickering and getting things done. I like grassroots campaigning — that means listening to people.”
Based on background and biography, the campaign would seem to offer stark choices.
However, both candidates have run toward the middle so that on key issues they have developed a surprising degree of overlap — at least at the press release level.
For instance, both candidates said they would have voted against the recently approved Congressional move to give the Treasury what amounts to a $700 billion line of credit to free up constricted credit markets.
Kirkpatrick objected to the bill because it didn’t include enough protections for small businesses and homeowners and instead provided a bailout for the Wall Street financial leaders who created the problem in the first place.
“I would only support a package that had strong reforms for Wall Street — more regulation. This bill had some, but we can do better. Give the taxpayers a chance to recoup their losses, limit executive pay from the corporations benefiting from the taxpayer fund and assist homeowners struggling to stay in their homes.”
Hay offered similar criticisms of the measure — on top of a deep-seated philosophical objection to such heavy government involvement in free markets. She said government should use tax cuts to lure people back into the financial markets.
For instance, she recommended a temporary suspension of capital gains taxes — in hopes that investors will see a chance to take advantage of bargain-basement stock prices. She conceded that such a plan might increase the profits for some of the same investors who created the current meltdown, but said that tax incentives make more sense than direct government investment in credit markets. However, Hay also agreed with Kirkpatrick that both Congress and the Administration failed to either enact enough regulations or use the rules already on the books.
A similar convergence takes place when it comes to pinning the candidates down on reforming Social Security — and whether Hay favors “privatizing” the current system.
Studies suggest the current system will not have enough money to pay full, promised benefits in 20 or 30 years, in part because the ratio of taxpaying workers to benefit-collecting retirees continues to decline.
Historically, current workers pay for current retirees, who each collect far more than they ever paid in — even when you include interest.
Various studies have suggested the system will have to raise the retirement age, limit indexing for inflation and perhaps limit benefits to remain solvent — the sooner the better.
Kirkpatrick says that Hay “wants to privatize Social Security. What we’re seeing on Wall Street right now is the very reason we should not privatize Social Security,” since individually invested accounts could get wiped out in a market collapse.
Kirkpatrick said Social Security reform is a high priority, but offered no specifics on changes she would support. “What I do is learn as much about it as I can. Then start bringing folks together: Sit down and talk about it — and build on that.”
Hay denied she supports “privatizing” the system, noting that the word has become politically “toxic.”
However, she does advocate solutions that have in previous debates been labeled “privatizing.”
She said, Social Security “is a house of cards that’s going to come down. One of the most important principles is that it’s your money and Congress doesn’t hold that sacred.” Currently, Congress borrows much of the Social Security surplus intended to provide benefits for retiring Baby Boomers to balance the federal budget.
Hay says the system must keep its promises to people older than 40 or 45, who don’t have time to save an equivalent amount of money in any alternative form. For those people, Congress should keep the existing promise of benefits.
However, she recommends phasing in a very different system for people in the 18-40 age group.
Those people should be able to set up individual, IRA-like accounts. Those accounts would be funded by individual and employer contributions.
The government would impose a range of restrictions on investment and prevent people from taking the money out before they reach retirement age. She said Chile instituted a similar system successfully.
“I don’t know that I’d call that ‘privatizing’ the system,” said Hay. “But we have a disaster looming — the system is upside down. Tinkering around the edges” like Kirkpatrick suggests “will maybe hold off the day of reckoning a while longer — but we can do better.”