No negative ads? Not likely
Some candidates for federal office in Connecticut are willing to lay down their arms for a more positive election season.
State House Speaker Chris Donovan, D-Meriden, last week started the conversation when he urged his three competitors for the 5th District congressional nomination to agree to avoid "negative campaigning" by their staffs or affiliated outside groups. Donovan suggested a fine of 50 percent of the cost of the offending advertising expenditure go to charity.
Observers say campaign trail detentes aimed at eliminating negative advertising are hollow attempts, particularly by front runners, to claim credit for taking the high road that will fall apart in the current political climate.
"It's a pipe dream," Richard Hanley, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University, said. "Asking a politician to pledge not to create negative ads is like asking a kid at Halloween not to eat the candy."
In this instance, the idea originated with the Southbury Democratic Town Committee, which is not endorsing candidates who play dirty.
"It turned kind of nasty," Morten said. "It was our feeling we were at that time giving fuel to Republicans."
Morten said his town committee defines negative campaigning as using words out of context and character attacks.
Elizabeth Esty, one of Donovan's opponents, was quick to shoot down the Speaker's proposal as a "gimmick."
"We're going to have an honest campaign focused on the issues," Esty said in statement.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, who, like Donovan, is considered a frontrunner, was quick to say, "The people of Connecticut deserve it."
But former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz's campaign staff said, "There are key substantive differences between Susan and Congressman Murphy that are going to be part of the discussion."
The campaign of state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said while they are willing to enter into such a pledge, their man is anticipating a "robust conversation about each of the candidate's records, values and vision for the state and country."
The response was similar from ex-U.S. Rep. Chris Shays' camp. Shays is vying with former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon for the GOP's U.S. Senate nomination. His spokesman said the candidate does not intend to go negative but added, "The reason we have campaigns is to point out the differences between candidates."
Hanley said Donovan or any other candidate should be able to take the high road without publicly calling for any deals.
"Just go ahead and do that," he said. "Feature that in their ads -- `I don't do negative ads.' "
Hanley said too often such offers become the focus of debate, derailing talk of real campaign issues. Donovan, for example, has already tried to use Esty's refusal to agree to his truce against her in a campaign email.
State Democratic Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo said that although she would prefer her candidates refrain from attacking each other, different people have different definitions about what is considered negative.
"If someone is criticizing a candidate's voting record ... is it a negative attack? Yes," DiNardo said. "But I don't think that is out of bounds."
Her Republican counterpart, Jerry Labriola, who has urged GOP candidates to keep it civil, agreed it can be challenging to define those boundaries. He wants to avoid a repeat of 2010's divisive battle for the U.S. Senate nomination between McMahon and former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons.
"The tone I believe undermined our chances in the general election," Labriola said.
Shays has begun to echo some of Simmons' attacks on WWE but in a statement said McMahon is the one with a record for negative ads, not him. McMahon's campaign said it is already running a "positive, issue-based" race.
John Baick, history professor at Western New England University in Massachusetts, has been observing an effort by Republican U.S. Senator Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren to keep their campaign ads civil. Their so-called People's Pledge was an attempt to prevent outside PACs from launching attacks on behalf of either candidate.
Baick said from the beginning the sides used their negotiations to score political points and the detente will not last.
"It's understood this is going to be a big, nasty race," he said.
In 2010 state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, and his Republican opponent successfully ran a civil campaign and actually toured the district together. Their unique bipartisan effort was recognized by Comedy Central's Daily Show.
"We showed up at VFW halls and grange halls and senior centers and stood side by side, gave our views on the issues and then we just took questions," Maynard recalled. "It's hard to be unpleasant and on the attack when you're standing next to somebody. And also it's hard to stretch the truth, which I think often happens in these negative attacks."