This Is What It Looks Like When A Political Movement Gets Desperate

Campaign ads in Michigan show just how brazen the lying has become.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. ― A radio ad getting wide play in Michigan offers a vivid example of the kinds of lies circulating all over the country in advance of next week’s midterm elections ― and who is primarily responsible for telling them.

The subject is Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that would set up a bipartisan commission to draw district lines for seats in the state Legislature and Congress. The measure’s goal is to end partisan gerrymandering, but the ad barely mentions that. It focuses instead on the commissioners and their supposed ability to raid the state treasury.

“The only guarantee is that it will cost you an insane amount of money,” the ad’s narrator warns. “Proposal 2 writes a blank check to 13 new ‘commissioners’ for a new bureaucracy, and they can spend whatever they want. No limits on staffing, lawyers, or consultants. Or themselves. Unlimited pay and perks.”

Just in case the prospect of greedy bureaucrats isn’t enough to scare off voters, the ad also claims that the money would divert funds from vital state needs: “Your taxes won’t be fixing roads or teaching children,” the narrator warns.

The bit about the roads is a nice touch, because Michigan’s roads are famously among the worst in the countryBut the claims in the ad are absurd.

Proposal 2 leaves discretion over the commission’s budget, including the commissioner salaries, to the state Legislature, as Michigan’s nonpartisan Bridge Magazine pointed out in its fact check. There’s no reason to think the Legislature will give the members outlandish pay or perks. If anything, the Legislature might try to undermine the commission by underfunding it. The proposal sets a minimum salary for that reason.

New ads against Michigan's Proposal 2, which would set up a commission to draw legislative districts and avoid partisan gerry
New ads against Michigan's Proposal 2, which would set up a commission to draw legislative districts and avoid partisan gerrymandering, say the measure will divert money from repairing the state's terrible roads. But projections suggest the commission will cost just $10 million over 10 years, which is not even a rounding error on the transportation budget.

More important, the entire redistricting endeavor, most of which would involve the logistics of holding hearings and commissioning statistical studies, would probably cost about $10 million over 10 years, according to projections. That is is a pittance relative to the $4.8 billion that the state spent on roads and $14.8 billion on schools in just the last year.

Overall, Bridge reporter Riley Beggin calculated, the commission’s expenses would likely soak up all of .01 percent of the general fund. Yes, that’s 1/100th of a percent.

The commission could have a pretty big effect, though, and that explains why this ad is running in the first place. Proposal 2 could shift power away from the political forces that have used gerrymandering to tilt state representation in their favor ― which, in recent memory, has been the Republicans and their allies.

Michigan has some of the most extreme gerrymandering in the country, which is why the GOP holds large majorities both in the state Legislature and congressional delegations, even though the state is closely divided politically. And so perhaps it is not surprising to discover that the group responsible for the ad just got a $1.2 million donation from the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group with ties to the DeVos family, as the Detroit News has reported.

Voters Not Politicians, the organization that put Proposal 2 on the ballot by gathering more than 400,000 signatures from across the state, has asked radio stations to pull the ad because of its inaccuracy. A handful have, but the big Detroit stations still have not, and now a version is running on television, too ― all but guaranteeing that these dishonest claims about the measure will reach more voters.

An Epidemic Of Political Dishonesty

Distortions in political advertising are part of politics, and neither political party has a monopoly on deception this election cycle. On the fact-checking websites, you’ll find examples of Democrats exaggerating GOP opposition to environmental regulation, for example, or pulling quotes about military service out of context.

But if you get the feeling the most frequent and audacious misrepresentations are coming from one side of the political spectrum, you are not crazy. 

Around the country, it’s Republicans and conservatives making the most patently ridiculous claims ― whether it’s this spot suggesting a commission’s tiny budget could somehow affect state expenditures on roads and schools, or all of those Republicans portraying themselves as champions of protections for people with pre-existing conditions even though they spent last eight years trying to take those protections away.

The desperation could be a sign of panic over the polls, which give Democrats a strong chance of winning key statewide races and control of the U.S. House, as well as an outside chance of gaining a majority in the Senate.

Democratic Party prospects certainly look good in Michigan, where the incumbent Republican governor, Rick Snyder, is stepping down because of term limits and the nominee to replace him, Attorney General Bill Schuette, has consistently trailed. Two and probably three Republican House seats now appear vulnerable, with three more no longer looking safe, despite the edge that gerrymandering has given Republicans in those districts, according to the Cook Political Report, FIveThirtyEight.com and Sabato’s Crystal Ball.  

Even the Michigan Supreme Court, whose justices the voters elect directly, could go from a Republican-backed to a Democratic-backed majority, with implications for everything from abortion rights to unions ― not to mention implementation of the anti-gerrymandering petition, should it pass.  

Republican don’t have an easy way to fight back. Their party leaders have negative approval ratings, while their legislative record in Washington consists of an unpopular health care bill that didn’t pass and an even less popular tax cut that did. And so they seem to have decided the best strategy is just making up stuff about the causes and candidates they oppose.

An example is a television advertisement stating that Elissa Slotkin, the Democratic candidate in one of those contested House seats, supports a single-payer health insurance scheme that would destroy Medicare.

An ad targeting Elissa Slotkin, the Democratic nominee for a key U.S. House seat in Michigan, says she supports a single-paye
An ad targeting Elissa Slotkin, the Democratic nominee for a key U.S. House seat in Michigan, says she supports a single-payer health care plan that would destroy Medicare. But single-payer wouldn't destroy Medicare, and Slotkin doesn't support single-payer anyway.

It’s the same script Republicans are using in other races, and its message collapses under even mild scrutiny. The single-payer health insurance proposals circulating wouldn’t destroy Medicare ― if anything, they’d enhance the benefits ― and the whole argument is pretty much irrelevant because Slotkin, like many other Democrats facing these attacks, doesn’t actually support single-payer.

Then there’s the Michigan GOP’s new digital ad against Gretchen Whitmer, the former state senator and Democratic nominee for governor.

Whitmer served briefly as a county prosecutor with jurisdiction that included East Lansing, home of Michigan State University. The Republican ad says that she failed to act on allegations against Larry Nassar, who is now serving what amounts to a life sentence for sexually abusing athletes while he was a doctor and trainer at MSU. It also says she didn’t follow up on reports of missing evidence related to the case. 

“Whitmer failed to act after hundreds of pieces of evidence, including rape kits, were destroyed,” the ad says. “Whitmer chose not to prosecute the largest sexual assault case in our state’s history. Why? Whitmer was too busy running for governor.”

The charge of prosecutorial dereliction has been around for a while, and MSU’s police chief is among those who have made it. But when the Bridge’s fact-checkers took a look, they concluded that Whitmer had neither ignored the initial allegations nor the missing evidence. “Whitmer did what any responsible prosecutor would do,” writer Lindsay VanHulle said of the claims about the missing evidence.  

Portraying Whitmer as somebody who might not take sexual abuse seriously is a particularly brazen move. In 2013, she gained national attention for a speech in which she revealed publicly that she had been raped while in college. She teared up while giving the speech. Afterward she had to call her father because, as she told the Detroit Free Press, he didn’t know about the attack either.

Whitmer gave that speech on the floor of the state Senate while speaking out against a GOP proposal prohibiting insurers from selling policies that include coverage of abortion, with exceptions for the life of the mother but not rape or incest. The proposal passed and became law anyway, because Republicans have a total grip on state government. The ability to keep passing laws like that is what’s at stake in next week’s election ― and not just in Michigan.