Senate candidates should end the mocking messages and start talking policy

You can fit the entire U.S. Senate in any high school cafeteria with room to spare. With only 100 members whose votes pick federal judges and help set policy, Senate races are always a big deal. And this year, it’s a really big deal because Mainers will pick the replacement for Sen. Olympia Snowe.

This campaign deserves real policy debates, with clarity about the candidates’ positions. But having that debate is going to get harder. The presidential race appears to be stabilizing, with President Barack Obama holding a national lead and, more critically, leading in nearly all battleground states.

Should the presidential campaign stay on this course, Republican political action committees will be sending substantially more money to Senate races, including Maine’s.

These SuperPACs know that, while there are six candidates on the ballot, either independent Angus King or Republican Charlie Summers will be Maine’s next senator. Democrat Cynthia Dill adds to policy discussions, but her ceiling is 19 percent, the amount won by Democrat Libby Mitchell in 2010.

Most of the communications for Secretary of State Summers come from others, with waves of negative ads aimed at King. Summers worked for the Small Business Administration, which gives businesses to loans, but one ad criticizes King for a wind project getting a government-backed loan for an enterprise King left eight months earlier.

Mocking messages, along with some rather nasty rumor-mongering from the Breitbart website may or may not be synchronized with the Summers campaign. But they add up to a tidy division of labor, enabling Summers to keep his own hands clean and say little about policy.

During his primary, Summers endorsed Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which would voucherize Medicare, reduce Medicaid and massively cut federal spending on education, environmental protection and health care. The Ryan plan cuts tax rates and unspecified tax deductions. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, its top-line numbers could only work if it eliminates deductions that go to the middle class, such as the mortgage interest deduction. Summers also pledged to conservative activist Grover Norquist to never, ever raise taxes on anyone.

As the Republican party moved right, so has Summers. Just as Romney was considered a moderate Republican when he was governor of Massachusetts, Summers campaigned as such when he ran for Congress in Maine’s 1st Congressional District. But he didn’t endorse Snowe when she was still a candidate for reelection (and she has not provided him financial support).

On his campaign website, Summers echoes Romney’s deceptive claim that Obamacare “cuts Medicare,” overlooking the increased prescription drug and preventive care benefits to Medicare recipients under Obamacare. Disregarding the 50 million Americans without health coverage, many of whom will gain it via the new law, Summers calls “skyrocketing costs,” not expanded coverage, “the main goal of health reform,” and faults the as yet implemented law for not achieving it.

Former Gov. King has run a campaign emphasizing his independence and commitment to bridge the parties in the Senate. And while King knows a lot about policy and does a great job explaining issues and positions, his ads have focused on making the Senate work or countering Republican attacks. While his website includes a commitment to not voucherize Medicare or privatize Social Security, King hasn’t featured these in ads, nor drawn contrasts to Summers’ views.

King should learn to disregard the tracker taping his every public word. While Summers’ campaign staff is being hypocritical, as they complained when a tracker followed candidate Collins several years ago, nationally trackers were common then and now. King can’t ignore false ads and is right to rebut false claims about the Roxbury wind project with statements from residents whose taxes the endeavor reduced.

Unlike Summers, King doesn’t have a national party committee to run ads on his behalf or party staffers to send out press releases. But King can make his communications and the overall campaign better if his messages emphasize kitchen-table issues people care about, like education, health care and the economy.

It’s time to avoid the distractions and get serious. Research indicates citizens learn the most from contrasts between candidates’ positions. That’s what the candidates and the Maine media should be discussing, as Maine people pick a Senator to craft legislation and cast one of 100 votes.

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. She has worked with King in the Maine Policy Scholars Program, an effort involving college students in policy research, which is funded through the Maine Community Foundation.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.