SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, in for Renee Montagne, I'm Susan Stamberg.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
If Republicans managed to keep control of Congress this fall, some credit may go to the man we'll meet next.
Mr. KEN MEHLMAN (Chairman, Republican National Committee): We have a tough election cycle. The good news is we anticipated this and very early on, said you got a tough race coming, let's get ready for it.
INSKEEP: Ken Mehlman is a Republican national chairman. His party has raised millions of dollars more than the Democrats. When he came to the line to talk yesterday, Republicans were in the middle of spending that money.
Some of it pays for the Republicans' side of a brutal war of commercials including on that has generated a backlash as we'll hear in a moment. Some of the money pays for a sophisticated voter database. Ken Mehlman's party has knocked on doors, checked voter rolls, and even bought the kind of consumer data that corporations used.
Mr. MEHLMAN: My experience, whether its politics or any kind of marketing, is the more information you have on your consumer, the better you're able to try to reach out to whom you figure out will take care about.
INSKEEP: When you talk about consumer data, is that what people buy - where they shop?
Mr. MEHLMAN: That is some of the information that you get, yes.
INSKEEP: Is there some correlation between a particular product that somebody might buy, and whether they are likely to be a sympathetic voter?
Mr. MEHLMAN: It's funny you mention that. I'll give you and example and that is cars. If you drive a Subaru, if you drive a Volvo, you tend to be more Democratic - and I say that is the son of two Volvo drivers - you tend to be more likely to vote Democrat than if you drive a Lincoln, or Porsche, or a truck.
INSKEEP: Let's say you've identified this person, you know that they drive a Lincoln. What are some of the other things you would then look for to determine...
Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, you might look, for instance, a - has this person voted before Republican or Democratic primaries? Has this person ever contributed to candidates for office? Does this person have children? They own a gun, which is information is available in some states.
All of that is the kind of information you can get, as well as lots of other consumer's data and that can be predictive to both behavior and issues people care about.
INSKEEP: How important is this technical apparatus going to be in November?
Mr. MEHLMAN: I think it's important. First of all, it helps you identify your voters. It helps you figure out the best way to reach out to them. It helps you expend the party. You know, one of then reasons we, in Ohio, doubled our support among African-Americans in 2004 is because we were able to reach out in places where before you couldn't because you only had one in 10 voters you could reach out to.
And so, to mail 10 people to get one, from a financial perspective, was unaffordable. It becomes affordable if you can find that one family that's willing to consider voting Republican. And I'm excited about what this can do. At the same time that's true. At the end of the day, what really matters most are the issues and the candidates running.
INSKEEP: Mr. Chairman, I want to play tape of an ad that has made some news. The Republican National Committee is credited with being responsible for this ad. It's playing in Tennessee.
The Democratic candidate for senator is Harold Ford. He's black and one of the many voices we're about to hear is a white woman issuing an invitation to him.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Man #1: Ford's right. I do have too many guns.
Unidentified Woman #1: I met Harold at the Playboy party.
Unidentified Woman #2: I'd love to pay higher marriage taxes.
Unidentified Man #2: Canada can take care of North Korea. They're not busy.
Unidentified Man #3: So we took money from porn movie producers. I mean, who hasn't?
Unidentified Woman #3: The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.
Unidentified Woman #1: Harold, call me.
INSKEEP: Ken Mehlman, this has made a lot of news, in part, because the woman making that solicitation at the end has been described as news account is scantily clad, although, when you watch the ad I actually don't see any clothes on this woman, she's just wearing a necklace.
Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, let me explain the law for your listener's for a second, cause that's important. This is what's called an independent expenditure. Under the current campaign reform law, as the National Committee, there are basically two kinds of ads we can produce. One is called a coordinated ad, and that's an ad that we worked with the campaign in order to sponsor.
The second one's called an independent expenditure, and that's an ad that the campaign has nothing to do with it, and if we have nothing to do with, but that an independent unit that we pay, produces and places their own ad.
INSKEEP: Somebody who's Republican who gets money from you, produces their own ad...
Mr. MEHLMAN: Exactly.
INSKEEP: ...and just don't tell you exactly what they're going to do.
Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, it's beyond that. We're legally not allowed to talk to them about what they're going to do and they're legally not allowed to talk to the candidate. In this particular case, the candidate has called for this ad to come down...
Mr. MEHLMAN: ...and doesn't like this ad.
INSKEEP: The Republican candidate wants it down.
Mr. MEHLMAN: The Republican candidate has called for this ad to come down.
INSKEEP: We should mention that the reason that people are saying that this ad is offensive, well, one reason anyway is that you have this white woman soliciting a black candidate in Tennessee and it's seen by the NAACP and some Republicans as an appeal to racist sentiment.
Mr. MEHLMAN: And look, as I said, this is an ad that was created independently of us. I looked at that ad. I didn't see it. Other folks have said that they saw it. And look I think it's critical that we always be very sensitive on these issues. You may object to the ad, and people who I respect have raised concerns about the ad, and I hear them and I understand that.
INSKEEP: Given that the Republican Party did come up with the money for it, though, should it come down?
Mr. MEHLMAN: That's going to, obviously, be the decision of a separate independent unit. The candidate has said he's not particularly fond of the ad. I'm not either.
INSKEEP: You know, the great Republican political consultant Roger Ailes wrote a book some years ago about communication, in which he said that if you are misinterpreted, then it's your responsibility to clean it up because you didn't communicate very well. Does the Republican Party have a responsibility to pull this ad if it makes you look like racists?
Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, the Republican Party doesn't have the legal authority to take this ad back. I don't believe that this ad makes the Republican Party look like racists. I don't believe this ad makes anybody involved look like it. The fact is, though, the most important thing, obviously, you need to do is comply with the law.
INSKEEP: Ken Mehlman is the Republican national chairman. Shortly after we recorded that interview, his staff called us back. They said the commercial that they had no power to stop has run its course and is going off the air. His spokesman says Mehlman approves of the ad's departure, but he still does not believe it was a racial appeal.
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