The first attack ad of the U.S. Senate campaign is running on radio stations across Minnesota. Paid for by an interest group, the ad accuses DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone of "taxing the dead." Wellstone's campaign is outraged over the ad. At the same time, the Wellstone campaign is running its first television spot.
A group called Americans for Job Security is running a 60-second radio ad criticizing what it portrays as Wellstone's position on the estate tax.
"Wife: Senator Wellstone just voted to keep the death tax.
Husband: Paul Wellstone actually voted to tax people because they died?
Wife: What's going to happen?
Husband: We're going to have to sell the farm.
Wife: No, Lloyd, we're going to call Paul Wellstone and tell him our folks paid their fair share. And to keep his money-grubbing hands off our farm," the ad says.
Ad analyst Ron Faber, a communications professor at the University of Minnesota, says the ad is almost laughable. But he says it might persuade rural voters unfamiliar with the details of Wellstone's voting record.
"Somebody listening to this - who doesn't know anything more about what has gone on in the past - would come away with the feeling that Wellstone is in support of taxing estates, and that would affect family farms," Faber says.
Wellstone says the ad is "1,000 percent distortion." Earlier this month, Wellstone voted against permanently repealing the estate tax, which is being phased out over the next decade, but would then be reinstated in 2010.
Wellstone says a permanent repeal would drain $1 trillion over the next 20 years out of the Social Security trust fund. But he says he voted to exempt family farms and small businesses, and exempt all other estates up to $8 million.
"After you target it like that, I think you've got about 35 or 36 families left in Minnesota, and we must be talking about billionaires at that point!" says Wellstone.
Wellstone's Republican opponent, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, supports a permanent repeal of the estate tax. A spokeswoman for the Coleman campaign, Leslie Kupchella, says the campaign has no control over ads run by outside groups. She says the campaign wants to avoid negative advertising, and the ads run by the Coleman campaign have focused on Coleman's accomplishments. Ad analyst Faber says that's probably how the campaign will proceed.
"The outside groups are going to target the key states, and Minnesota is very definitely a key state that's in play for the Senate right now," Faber says. "I believe we'll see more of these by outside groups, and I think the attack ads will come predominantly from these outside groups, and not from the candidates themselves."
Faber says negative ads can backfire and hurt whoever runs them.
Both campaigns are running positive ads right now. The DFL Party ran three pro-Wellstone ads in the spring. Now, the first television ad paid for by the Wellstone campaign begins with Wellstone speaking directly to voters.
"There's a lot of money and a lot of power in our nation's capital. Sometimes, if you go against the grain, it takes time. But you have to stay with it," the ad says.
Faber says the ad subtly addresses an area where Wellstone is vulnerable to attack - his pledge to only serve two terms.
"We're given a reason - although not explicitly but implicitly - a reason for why he would want a third term. Things take a long time in Congress, it takes a long time to enact legislation," says Faber.
The ad also touts Wellstone's support for veterans, senior citizens and children. Coleman television ads have been running for months, but Faber says Wellstone, as the incumbent, didn't need to be up on television as early as his challenger.
The Coleman campaign is also running a new television ad focusing on rural development. If the latest ads are any indication, rural Minnesota will be a major battleground in the Senate race.More from MPR