RALEIGH, N.C. -- U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole's hard-hitting ad highlighting her Democratic opponent's ties to an atheist political action committee has blown the lid off an already down and dirty Tar Heel brawl. It's the final chapter in a race that could be one of the upsets giving Democrats a supermajority in Congress. It's also an example of how the mainstream media and political spin doctors miss the point -- badly.
North Carolina's demographics are changing, but residents still prefer theists as their elected leaders. That's why Dole chose to run the ad against Kay Hagan, a five-term state senator from Greensboro and top Democrat in the General Assembly. (In fact, she boasts about being a "budget expert" -- hardly a matter of pride considering state spending has swollen by $10 billion since she was first elected).
The ad points out that Hagan recently attended a fundraiser in Boston partly hosted by Woody Kaplan, an advisor to the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The group advocates secular fundamentalism and seeks to erase every vestige of religion from public life. Lawyers for Dole claim that Hagan accepted $2,300 in campaign cash from Kaplan, a charge that Hagan hasn't denied.
The final seconds of the ad generated the most controversy. "Godless Americans and Kay Hagan," the narrator says. "She hid from cameras, took Godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?" A dubbed voice that could be mistaken for Hagan's then proclaims, "There is no God."
That's been the focal point of Hagan's response. In a press release put out late last week announcing a lawsuit over the ad, a spokesperson for the Hagan campaign said that Dole had impugned Hagan's "character, her convictions, and her faith." No mention of Kaplan's donation or Hagan's attendance at the fundraiser. The tactic appears to be working. Most North Carolina newspapers have rallied against Dole. The national media, of course, is on Hagan's side. But in rebutting the misleading parts of Dole's ad, commentators ignored the lion's share that's true. Hagan did attend a fundraiser in Boston hosted by big-time liberals, including Kaplan, and accepted a donation from him. She hasn't returned the cash even after learning of his associations, nor distanced herself from the radical atheistic group. Why not?
There is no religious test for public office in the United States, and rightly so. But Americans are free to vote for or against a candidate based on whatever they want, including religious belief. Such convictions color candidates' policy aims, whether they admit it or not. That makes it fair game.
Hagan says she is a committed Christian. I don't quibble with that, even though many of her positions are antithetical to biblical teaching (support for abortion on demand being one). But why, as a committed believer, would she attend a meeting partially hosted by individuals connected to a radical atheistic agenda? If she didn't know about the connections, why hasn't she publicly condemned the group's radical agenda in the aftermath of the ad fiasco?
The answer doesn't take much grey matter to figure out. Hagan can get more mileage from ripping Dole as a mudslinger than criticizing a far-left secularist group, even in relatively conservative North Carolina. It's a shame that the core points of the ad have been swallowed in a politically correct tsunami of media criticism. But that's politics.
It's a big question mark how the debacle will impact voters' attitudes on Election Day. A new Rasmussen poll gives Hagan a six-point lead over Dole, but a Mason-Dixon survey puts Dole at 46 percent to Hagan's 42 percent . The Cook Political Report lists the race as a toss-up. That's troubling for Dole, who was elected by a comfortable margin in 2002 to fill Jesse Helm's Senate seat.
The Obama effect could have a major impact on the race, too. Over 20,000 supporters attended an Obama rally in Raleigh on Wednesday. The crowd snaked around the General Assembly building and filled several downtown streets. Early voting returns indicate that Democrats are turning out big for Obama, and that can only help Hagan.
Worse for the GOP, Dole is one of several senators blocking the magic 60-member majority needed by the Democrats to have unchecked power in the Senate. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, chaired by the plucky Chuck Schumer, has poured $6.6 million into anti-Dole ads.
I wonder if some of that money is courtesy of Godless Americans PAC.
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