WASHINGTON -- The "dark money" nonprofit Crossroads GPS is taking a new tack in its attacks on two Democratic Senate candidates, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. The ads knocking both candidates steer clear of the usual conservative line of assault about out-of-control spending and more onerous regulations to focus on criticism that would normally come from the left side of the aisle.
In Montana, Crossroads ads are knocking Tester for wanting to roll back regulations on Wall Street. In Virginia, the group has spent millions attacking Kaine for allegedly cutting education funding when he was governor.
Crossroads GPS spokesman Nate Hodson sought to cast these lines of attack in the same light as the usual conservative fare: "Just like their support of the wasteful stimulus package and Obamacare, these ads show how the out-of-touch positions of Tim Kaine and Jon Tester hurt families in Virginia and Montana, respectively."
Still, these ads' arguments sound odd coming from one of the biggest spenders among conservative activist groups this election cycle.
They seem to follow a strategy notably pursued by Crossroads' Republican founder, Karl Rove: Attack where your target is strong. Vanity Fair journalist Craig Unger, author of Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power, wrote about Rove, "He's famous for attacking candidates at their strengths."
The anti-Tester spots may also be pushing an unknown donor's pet issue (Crossroads does not disclose its contributors).
Crossroads blasts the incumbent Montana senator as being in the pocket of Wall Street because he sponsored legislation to delay a regulation mandated by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. This despite the fact that Crossroads advocates for the wholesale repeal of Dodd-Frank.
The specific rule that Tester sought and failed to delay last year imposed a cap on the "swipe fees" that banks could charge retailers when a customer used a debit card for a purchase. Although barely noticed by voters, the rule spurred a massive lobbying campaign in 2011 with banks and retailers pouring cash into congressional campaign coffers to secure support for their opposing sides.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Tester is the number two recipient of campaign cash from commercial banks among senators this electoral cycle -- behind only Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the chief Republican co-sponsor of that swipe-fee delay bill.
Being seen as close to Wall Street undercuts Tester's image as a rural populist who brings his own meat from Montana to Washington, D.C. During the debate on the swipe-fee legislation, Tester's position did not appear popular in his home state. Montana newspapers routinely ran stories noting that Tester was taking the side of the banks, and a poll commissioned by retailers found that 75 percent of Montanans opposed his position and supported the cap on debit card charges.
With the anti-Tester ad, another force may also be driving Crossroads. During the 2011 debate over the swipe-fee bill, Rove and a group connected to both him and Crossroads took the retailers' side.
As The Huffington Post reported, the conservative nonprofit Americans for Job Security ran ads in opposition to Tester's bill. The group operates out of the offices of Crossroads Media, which makes ads for Crossroads GPS. When Rove appeared on a local Montana radio station in 2011, he, too, accused Tester of being in Wall Street's pocket.
Since Crossroads does not disclose its donors, it is unclear whether the group is receiving contributions from the big-box retailers who generally funded much of the opposition to Tester's bill.
In Virginia, Crossroads seeks to undermine the strength of the Democratic candidate. Kaine, who is running against former Sen. George Allen (R), has a high favorable rating in his home state and has capitalized on that by speaking straight to the camera in the majority of his ads.
The Crossroads spots criticize Kaine for proposing to reduce K-12 education funding while serving as governor. Yet Crossroads supports federal budget cuts that would inevitably lead to cuts in less education funding and has opposed stimulus funds that helped state and local governments maintain education budgets during the worst months of the recession.
The attack appears designed to counter Kaine's recent television ads in which he touts his accomplishments as governor, including the assertion, "We were fiscally responsible while advancing our most important priorities like education."
A review of Crossroads' anti-Kaine ads by FactCheck.org, however, found that they were incomplete and misleading. "Kaine was not proposing new cuts to education; he proposed that the Legislature delay a planned funding redistribution that, if implemented, would have resulted in cuts for two-thirds of the state's poorest school districts," wrote FactCheck. In the end, the proposal was not adopted as the newly elected Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell opposed it.
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