Negative campaigning has become more effective since 1828, though at times no less brutal. Many attribute this growing efficiency to the legacy of Republican strategist Lee Atwater. The former RNC chairman may have been best known as a driving force behind political ads such as the iconic Willie Horton commercial against Michael Dukakis in 1988, but his past involvement in smear campaigns is much deeper. Slate reports on Atwater's earlier career:
In 1973, the 22-year-old protégé of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond began his consulting career by publicizing the fact that Tom Turnipseed, a candidate for the state Senate, had undergone shock therapy as a young man: "They hooked him up to jumper cables" became the catchphrase that sunk Turnipseed's candidacy. Five years later, Atwater helped to defeat Max Heller, a Holocaust survivor running for U.S. Congress, by secretly enlisting a third candidate to enter the race and stir up anti-Semitic sentiment. Atwater finagled his way into a minor post in the Reagan administration, but it was as the director of George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign (and mastermind of the Willie Horton TV ads) that he found his true Machiavellian voice.
The potential perils of attack politics were on full display in 1996 when then-GOP Senate candidate Al Salvi attempted to knock down a high-profile endorsement given to his opponent, then-Rep. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), by former Ronald Reagan Press Secretary Jim Brady.
Brady "used to sell" machine guns, Salvi alleged, a strong claim considering Brady's position as strong advocate for gun control and victim of a gunshot wound to the head during a failed assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981.
Salvi was wrong.
"Turns out that was a different Jim Brady," a blushing Salvi was later forced to admit. "I apologize."
Salvi ended up losing to Durbin.
In 2002, Saxby Chambliss, then a Georgia GOP congressman mounting a bid for U.S. Senate, released a controversial ad falsely accusing then-Sen. Max Cleland (D), a triple-amputee Vietnam War veteran, of voting against the nation's national security interest. It placed Cleland next to images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and suggested that the senator lacked "courage."
Chambliss, who didn't serve in Vietnam because of a bad knee, drew widespread condemnation from Republican military veterans in the Senate such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel.
In a 2008 interview, Chambliss, who had eventually gone on to defeat Cleland six years earlier, stood by his ad as "truthful in every way."
Long before Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) uttered shrieks of joy because of false reports that the Supreme Court had ruled against Obamacare, she outraged colleagues on the House floor by suggesting that Vietnam veteran Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), was a "coward."
In 2005, Schmidt addressed her colleagues in a House speech, relaying a message from a Marine who she said had urged her to support an extension of the Iraq War.
"He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course," she said. "He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do. Danny and the rest of America and the world want the assurance from this body -- that we will see this through."
She later returned to the House floor to have her remarks stricken from the record and to apologize to Murtha.
In 2006, the Republican National Committee set off bickering within and between political parties when it decided to air an ad in a Senate race between then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and GOP candidate Bob Corker. The ad was chock-full of stereotypes and thinly-veiled racist undertones -- Ford is black. It drew widespread condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans, including Corker himself.
Amid the flareup, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman said he found nothing wrong with the ad, but attempted to blame the content on a third party group. Corker eventually won the election.
In the heat of the 2008 presidential election, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin lofted a now-infamous charge, drawing immediate criticism from opponents who saw it as an attempt to brand then-candidate Barack Obama as un-American. Some even alleged that it was a racially charged character attack seeking to subtly link the supposed terrorist ties to prevalent right-wing conspiracy theories about Obama's so-called Muslim roots.
The Associated Press reports on her comments:
"Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," Palin told a group of donors in Englewood, Colo. A deliberate attempt to smear Obama, McCain's ticket-mate echoed the line at three separate events Saturday.
"This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America," she said. "We see America as a force of good in this world. We see an America of exceptionalism."
In 2008, a floundering Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) released an ad attempting to accuse her opponent, Democrat Kay Hagan, of having mysterious ties to a group called Godless Americans.
The entire ad struck many observers as a desperate attempt to regain momentum, but the brunt of the controversy came in the last few seconds, when a faceless voice rings out, yelling "there is no God." Many saw it as an attempt to paint the quote as Hagan's. It wasn't. In fact, Hagan was a Sunday School teacher who served as an elder at her Presbyterian church.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) had a somewhat rapid ascent to her current status as darling of conservatives and the Tea Party faithful. It was accelerated in part by appearances such as this one in 2008, during which she called into question the "pro-America" views of the Obamas and various members of Congress.
HuffPost's Sam Stein reported at the time:
In a television appearance that outraged Democrats are already describing as Joseph McCarthy politics, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed on Friday that Barack Obama and his wife Michelle held anti-American views and couldn't be trusted in the White House. She even called for the major newspapers of the country to investigate other members of Congress to "find out if they are pro-America or anti-America."
Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball, Bachmann went well off the reservation when it comes to leveling political charges against the Democratic nominee.
"If we look at the collection of friends that Barack Obama has had in his life," she said, "it calls into question what Barack Obama's true beliefs and values and thoughts are. His attitudes, values, and beliefs with Jeremiah Wright on his view of the United States...is negative; Bill Ayers, his negative view of the United States. We have seen one friend after another call into question his judgment -- but also, what it is that Barack Obama really believes?"
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) embodied a newly emerging brand of hyper-partisanship in 2009 when he interrupted President Barack Obama's major speech on his health care reform package.
"You lie!" Wilson yelled over Obama, who was explaining that the legislation would not mandate coverage for undocumented immigrants.
Wilson's outburst drew disapproval from both sides of the aisle.
During the heat of the health care debate in 2010, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) added to the growing partisan discord when he shouted "baby killer" at Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) while he was delivering a speech on the House floor. Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat, had been under heavy fire from Republicans after crafting a deal with the White House in return for his and other Democrats' "yes" vote on the health care reform bill. The White House held up their end of the bargain with an executive order affirming that no taxpayer money would go to fund abortions.
North Carolina GOP congressional candidate Renne Ellmers raised some eyebrows and gave her race national attention when she released an attack ad attempting to link her Democratic challenger to the controversial Park51 Islamic center.
The ad was criticized for its apparent interchangeable use of the words "terrorists" and "Muslims," as well as the fact that Ellmers' opponent, incumbent Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) hadn't even weighed in on the issue yet.
Ellmers didn't appear to do herself any favors in her attempts to explain the ad during a contentious interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, but she ended up winning in November after a late surge of momentum.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) managed to give his opponent, Republican Dan Webster, a boost after he released an attack ad seeking to label Webster as "Taliban Dan." The spot featured selectively edited quotes from a 2009 Christian seminar that misrepresented Webster's words to suggest that he believed wives should submit to their husbands.
Grayson had repeatedly enraged his Republican opponents with biting and at times over-the-top allegations. Comments such as his notorious charge that their health care plan was for Americans to "die quickly" had made him a top target for the GOP. He would lose his election to Webster.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) did himself no favors in the fall of 2011, when he returned a volley concerning his past nude modeling for Cosmopolitan magazine, a career choice that his Democratic opponent Elizabeth Warren had earlier jabbed at.
HuffPost's Ryan Grim reported:
"Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren's comment about how she didn't take her clothes off?" the host asked Brown Wednesday.
"Thank God!" Brown said, laughing.
The host got a kick out it, too. "That's what I said! I said, 'Look, can you blame a good-looking guy for wanting to, you know..."
His opponents quickly hit back, claiming that the comments were sexist and "the kind of thing you would expect to hear in a frat house, not a race for U.S. Senate."
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) couldn't have picked a bigger stage to launch a now-notoriously insensitive ad against his Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
In the middle of the Super Bowl, Hoekstra's campaign rolled out the spot, which featured an Asian-American actress using stereotypically broken English to accuse Stabenow -- or "Spend-It-Now" -- of supporting U.S. government spending habits that benefitted the Chinese economy.
The backlash was bipartisan and widespread.
Though only a freshman, Tea Party favorite Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) has already staked his political fame on inflammatory and controversial statements.
His most well-known claim is now perhaps his contention that as many as 80 House Democrats are members of the Communist Party. His spokesperson later claimed that he was referring to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Of course, that's just one of a catalogue of Allen West-isms. Click through the slideshow here for a larger sampling.
Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) began digging himself a hole in July when he suggested that his Democratic opponent, triple-amputee Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, was not a "true hero" because she spoke too frequently about her military service.
In the followup, Walsh kept digging deeper on the Duckworth line, claiming that "all she does" is "talk about her service," instead of focusing on other issues. He took a similar angle in a subsequent interview, in which he managed to utter his interviewer's name more than 90 times.