Democrats Seek To Split GOP Vote In Close Races

NPR's Michele Norris talks to Kasie Hunt, national political reporter for Politico, about Democrats' efforts to split Republican votes in districts with close races. Hunt says that in more than a dozen races all across the country, Democrats have been airing ads and sending out mailers to Republican households, touting the conservative messages of little-known Tea Party and other third-party candidates — thereby giving them name recognition. She sees it as an acknowledgement among some Democrats that they cannot win in a two-party race, and that their best bet is to try take away some of the votes headed to their main opponents.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Negative ads are a staple of any election. But there's also been some less traditional campaigning going on in the Pennsylvania district Robert visited. Last week, Bryan Lentz, the Democrat running for the House seat, acknowledged that some of his supporters helped get a Tea Party candidate on the ballot to try to split the Republican vote.

Turns out splitting the Republican vote is something Democrats are attempting in more than a dozen close races. That's according to a story this week in Politico.

Reporter Kasie Hunt found that Democrats have been raising the profiles of little-known third-party candidates.

Ms. KASIE HUNT (Reporter, Politico.com): We're actually seeing this all across the country, in districts from Florida to Texas to Colorado. These candidates have landed on the ballots. And in many places, Democrats are actually working to, I wouldn't quite say promote them but advance and encourage their candidacies.

NORRIS: And how are they doing that, advancing and encouraging those candidacies?

Ms. HUNT: We're seeing all sorts of different ways, actually: Television ads; robo calls; and in particular, a set of mailers that actually co-opts the rhetoric and language that the Tea Party has been using this year, you know, things like limited government, lower taxes, pictures of the Constitution, images of people in tri-corner hats carrying muskets, all of those things.

Now, ostensibly these mailers say that these candidates are too extreme, and they are supposed to be negative. But on the other hand, they are all going to very Republican households, so people that are registered with the Republican Party. And it's a pretty clear attempt to strip votes away from Republicans and turn them over to third-party or Tea Party candidates.

NORRIS: In this tactic, is it that they're not just pointing to the positions of these candidates but actually just giving them a little bit of name recognition because some of these candidates are not that well-known?

Ms. HUNT: Right, exactly. I mean, in almost all of these cases, you know, these third-party or Tea Party candidates, they barely register in the polls. So what you end up with is a flier that's essentially providing publicity to someone that, you know, most voters probably have no idea is even running for Congress.

NORRIS: Is this actually legal?

Ms. HUNT: It's not illegal. All the Democratic Party is required to do is make sure that the recipients of this mail know where it comes from. You know, one of the mailings that we received here, I mean, it says very clearly: Paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But of course, if we step back and consider how voters consume this kind of media, I mean, you know, you go home, you pick up your mail, you take a quick look at it. You see a third-party candidate who is going to cut government programs and reduce taxes.

I mean, that's the message that you're going to take away, even if you spend the time to read the fine print, and it says something else.

NORRIS: How does the DCCC explain this activity?

Ms. HUNT: I mean, they don't really want to acknowledge or comment on it. They just say that, well, voters need to be told how extreme these people are. So they're not denying it.

NORRIS: The GOP now says that this is a dirty trick.

Ms. HUNT: Absolutely, you know, and when we turn around, and in another cycle there are Republicans trying to do it to Democrats, Democrats will probably call it a dirty trick, too.

NORRIS: Is this in some ways an act of political desperation? You could argue that the Democrats might be better served in trying to boost their base and actually promote their own candidates and their own policies, as opposed to confusing voters on the other side of the aisle.

Ms. HUNT: Right. Well, it almost gets to the point where Democrats are conceding that they're probably not going to be able to pick up the votes that they need in a two-candidate race.

So instead of spending time and money promoting their candidate, they're spending time and money trying to split votes away from the other candidate. And they're doing it in the races, many of which pundits have been paying attention to for a long time and who feel are probably already lost.

NORRIS: It sounds like a Hail Mary pass.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HUNT: It does.

NORRIS: Kasie Hunt, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Ms. HUNT: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: Kasie Hunt is a national political reporter for Politico.

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