March 25, 1998

G.O.P. Fears Outside 'Help' May Backfire

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    WASHINGTON -- Republicans are bracing for an unexpected consequence of the efforts by outside interest groups to swamp local elections with advertising campaigns: The costly commercials, intended to help Republicans, can backfire -- and may even help Democrats.

    Republican Party officials, strategists and candidates themselves fear that the independent groups are sometimes so unfamiliar with the local dynamics or issues of a race that their good intentions may be at odds with the message of their favored candidate. Worse than that, they may even prompt more Democrats to go to the polls.

    "If you don't understand the environment and you don't understand the electorate, you could be making a big mistake and causing an explosion," said Maria Cino, who stepped down last year as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. She is worried, Ms. Cino said, that some commercials this year might hurt Republicans they were intended to help -- the parallel of what she recalled happened in 1996 when heavy spending by labor ended up benefiting Republicans.

    The impact of outside political efforts has important implications for Republicans and Democrats alike because several organizations are poised to spend, collectively, millions of dollars this year to press their issues in local and state races to elect their favored candidates. But the early evidence -- in a special election this month for a House seat in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a primary last week for the House from the Chicago suburbs -- suggests that beyond taking control of the issue agenda from the candidates, the advertisements can result in advertising free-for-alls that confuse voters or stir them up in unanticipated ways.

    A poll conducted for the National Republican Congressional Committee concluded that hundreds of thousands of dollars of anti-abortion commercials designed to help defeat Lois Capps in her bid for the House from California may have so outraged Democrats that the advertisements actually led party members to turn out in larger numbers.

    Asked about whether the independent advertising drives can backfire, a senior Republican official said: "It's a wild card. It's unpredictable." The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed frustration that the party could not do anything to control the groups. "It's a fact of life," he said. "People are going to have to fight through it."

    And despite candidates' concerns about the independent advertisements, many are reluctant to try to stop them because they do not want to anger groups or causes that are inclined to support them.

    Several experts said the outside groups might be more successful if they pumped their resources into targeting specific groups of voters and prodding them to turn out rather than blanketing districts with high-profile television and radio campaigns that mostly reach people who are unlikely to vote anyway.

    "It seems to me that the most effective means is to understand who your audience is and have a tool or a strategy that directs the message right to that audience," said Arne Owens, communications director of the Christian Coalition, which favors distributing voter guides at churches. "That avoids sending the message to a wider audience that may not be receptive -- and may actually be hostile to it and use certain aspects of that message against you."

    Ms. Cino argued that Republicans had profited from mistakes by unions in 1996. Unions spent millions of dollars on anti-Republican commercials in 1996, she said, and the advertisements were so pervasive that people were turned off and less likely to believe them. "It was overkill, and it got to be almost ridiculous," Ms. Cino said. "I think that backfired in '96" for Democrats, who failed to regain the House and Senate despite labor's avalanche of money in Congressional races and major get-out-the-vote effort.

    This year, Republicans could suffer the same sort of unintended consequences. Mary Crawford, communications director of the NRCC, said the committee would not release the poll of voters in the California special election, explaining that "we're still discussing it internally."

    But a person who reviewed a draft of the survey -- conducted of voters contacted on the two nights after the election -- said it found that 70 percent of voters said they had seen anti-abortion commercials intended to help Tom Bordonaro Jr., the Republican candidate. Of those who had seen the advertisements, 24 percent said the commercials made them more likely to vote for Mrs. Capps, while only 19 percent were more likely to vote for Bordonaro.

    Wes Anderson, the Republican pollster here who conducted the survey, contended that Mrs. Capps would likely have defeated Bordonaro anyway in her quest to fill out her husband's term, because of sympathy for her after her husband died in office. Still, Anderson acknowledged, the survey of voters turned up signs of a backlash.

    "You can't dump that kind of money on TV and not have it affect the race," Anderson said. He added that "it would be very, very easy to overstate the effectiveness" of the advertising for the candidate it is intended to benefit.

    In the case of Bordonaro, the anti-abortion commercials, sponsored by an organization called the Campaign for Working Families, probably did help him defeat his moderate incumbent in the primary. The organization also spent tens of thousands of dollars on radio advertisements and mailings to help Peter Roskam, a Republican state representative from Illinois, in a primary for the House. He was defeated last week.

    Gary Bauer, a prominent conservative who heads the working families group, rejected criticism that his efforts had backfired, and he said many candidates were seeking him out for support.

    "We've had not one case of anybody asking us to stay out of their race," Bauer said. "These party folks, whoever they are, need to look at their own performance. There was a consensus by the end of the Bordonaro race that the money they could have put into that race was not sent in for Bordonaro." Bauer added that some Republican officials were unfairly blaming him for their own deficiencies in helping candidates.

    While Roskam said that "there's always a potential" for advertising campaigns to backfire, he did not blame the anti-abortion advertisements for his loss. But in California, Bordonaro said he hoped that the working families group did not again try to help him this year, when he seeks a rematch with Mrs. Capps.

    "It really needs to be taken a look at," he said. "Our campaign was overwhelmed, not only by my opponent but by the independent expenditures. There was a lot of confusion."

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