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October 23, 2014

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ELECTION 2008 :

Close races — such as Porter-Titus — breed attack ads, experts say

The television advertising wars between Jon Porter and Dina Titus started off like the first round of most boxing matches: a few light jabs, with not many punches landing.

Porter, the 3rd Congressional District’s GOP congressman, started on Sept. 3 with an ad touting his promotion of solar energy. A day later Titus, a Democratic state senator, ran a spot with her mom at her side, noting some of her legislative accomplishments and having a laugh about her lingering Southern accent.

That lasted about a week.

The ads sponsored by both campaigns, and their “independent” proxies, have turned largely negative.

Porter has taken the lead.

The early negativity is an indication that the candidates think it’s a tight race, political consultants say. A Democratic lead in voter registration adds further incentive for Porter to go on the attack.

Two recent ads from Porter’s campaign have accused Titus of being a self-serving politician who has used public service to enrich herself, a dedicated tax-raiser and someone who consistently sides with “special interests” as opposed to regular Joes and Janes.

Titus’ campaign manager, Jay Gertsema, says the playing field is tilted in favor of Democrats this year because of one of the biggest issues, — the economy — and the higher number of registered Democrats in the district.

That gives Porter fewer ways to try to eke out a win, he said.

“He’s really only got one direction, which is to attack,” Gertsema says. “It’s sad that he wants to drag this down to a personal and ugly level. It shows how desperate their campaign is.”

Porter campaign spokesman Matt Leffingwell said the objective of the campaign’s ads is to connect with voters. “We want voters to understand the contrast between the two (candidates) on these important issues,” Leffingwell said.

Polls have shown the race to be close, often within the surveys’ margin of error, though Titus’ newest internal poll, released Thursday, showed her with a 9-point lead.

In Titus’ favor: Two years ago Porter defeated his opponent, Tessa Hafen, by less than 4,000 votes. Hafen was less well-known than Titus, a former gubernatorial candidate who has been in the state Senate for 20 years. And there are about 29,000 more Democrats registered to vote in the district than Republicans. In 2006, Democrats’ voter registration advantage was about 2,800.

Porter’s first negative ad came out Sept. 10. The Titus ad that started the next day — about her stance on energy-related issues — lasted only a day before she responded to the attack.

Titus accused Porter of spreading the same lies about her that Gov. Jim Gibbons used against her in their race two years ago. “And look where that got us,” she said, referring to Gibbons’ troubled governorship.

She then went after Porter for voting “in lock step” with President Bush. That ad is still running.

On Friday both sides released new ads, including Titus’ toughest spot yet. In that ad, titled “Enough,” she attacks Porter for repeatedly “smearing” his opponents, for letting oil companies keep gas prices high and for backing the relaxation of regulation “that created our financial crisis.”

At the same time, Porter released his latest attack ad, again going after Titus as a habitual tax-raiser. With the Wall Street crisis at hand, the narrator says, “the last thing Nevadans need is another tax-and-spend politician in Washington. The stakes are too high.”

Both sides also have outside groups attempting to influence the election with negative ads.

A spot being run by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington attacks Porter for accepting campaign donations from insurance, drug and oil companies, and then giving them tax breaks.

A pro-Porter ad, from a group called Freedom’s Watch, mocks Titus’ Southern accent and attacks her on taxes.

Those “independent expenditure” ads are sponsored by groups that are not supposed to coordinate their efforts with the candidates’ campaigns.

The negative ads may be distasteful, two local political consultants said, but they’re often effective — especially in tight races.

Dan Hart, a locally based political consultant, said it isn’t surprising that Porter has been aggressively negative in his ads.

“He’s done that consistently in his campaigns,” said Hart, who is not affiliated with Titus’ campaign but usually works with Democratic candidates. “None of that should be a surprise.”

Going negative could have an added benefit this election, Hart said. Because of the heightened interest in the presidential race, voter turnout is expected to be higher than normal, he said, possibly 85 percent or higher.

A steady influx of new residents has swelled Porter’s district to about 1.1 million people — 400,000 more than the average congressional district.

That means lots of newer, potentially less-informed voters, who typically are more susceptible to negative ads because they have little underlying knowledge to put them in context.

Reno-based Republican political consultant Pete Ernaut agreed. The ultratight nature of the race means the candidates don’t have the luxury of taking the high road, he said.

“When you’re sitting on a 10-12 point lead, you can be a counter-puncher. When it’s this tight, that just won’t work,” said Ernaut, who has previously done policy research for Porter but is not working for him.

“If you’re explaining, you’re dying,” he said.

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