Washington — U.S. Rep. Gary Peters has been criticized in attack ads funded by outside conservative groups since last fall in an effort to undercut his bid to become Michigan’s next U.S. senator.
The ad campaigns — including a controversial one by a cancer patient running now — aim to help Michigan Republicans try to gain a Senate seat for the first time in 20 years. Unlike seven other states with competitive Senate races and heavy conservative advertising, no Democratic group has come to Peters’ rescue from the nearly $2 million ad barrage — until now.
The Senate Majority PAC, the main Democratic super committee, will announce an ad launch in Michigan as early as Wednesday, according to the group.
The $400,000 two-week ad buy won’t match the conservative effort to define Peters — relatively unknown outside his Metro Detroit base — as a big government Democrat who wants to take away people’s health insurance. But it’s a start in a close race against Republican Terri Lynn Land, the former secretary of state.
“This election is a choice,” Ty Matsdorf, campaign director of the Senate Majority PAC, told The News about its inaugural ads whose content is not known. “Terri Lynn Land, who has been propped by special interests, is advocating a reckless and irresponsible agenda that would hurt middle-class Michigan families and we want to make sure voters are aware of where she stands on these important issues.”
Peters is the Bloomfield Township Democrat who favored the health care law and repeated President Barack Obama’s dubious claim that people could keep their health plan if they liked it. But he recently sided with House Republicans in their attempts to fix the website and the law, such as allowing discontinued policies to remain in place.
Conservatives are aiming to make the 2014 midterm elections another referendum on health care because of the faulty healthcare.gov rollout in October and low public opinion about the healthcare law. Leading the charge is Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-funded group that is pouring in the most money in Michigan with $1.75 million over two ad campaigns.
As of last week, the tea party group had spent $30 million in House and Senate ads nationwide, according to Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips. Michigan ranks in the top three nationally for TV rating points purchased, Phillips said, behind North Carolina and Louisiana.
Michigan has been hurt by the health care law and it’s important to hold Peters and lawmakers who voted for the law accountable, Phillips said.
“We’re committed to a long-term effort to repeal Obamacare, and it’s their decision to keep supporting this law or to run ads to defend it,” Phillips said.
The most recent Americans for Prosperity ad, featuring Dexter cancer patient Julie Boonstra, has been challenged for accuracy by fact checkers and the Peters’ campaign. She implies in the emotional spot that Peters’ vote for the health care law jeopardizes her life because now her out-of-pocket costs are so high, her plan is unaffordable. The ad conflicts with what Boonstra told The News three weeks earlier — that her premiums were cut in half under her new health care plan, though she pays more for co-pays.
Peters’ lawyer sent TV stations a letter urging them to question Americans for Prosperity for factual documentation and reminded the stations under federal rules they don’t have to air such a third-party advertisements. In choosing to, the letter said, “your station bears responsibility for its content.”
Standing by the ad, Americans for Prosperity called a hastily organized press event for Boonstra Saturday to attempt to confront Peters at his home. Boonstra clarified on Fox News last week the new plan is unaffordable because she cannot control her monthly out-of-pocket costs like she could previously. “It suited it me better,” Boonstra said of her old high-premium plan she lost under Obamacare rules.
In the high-stakes Senate races, outside spending from super PACs, unions and social welfare groups are main sources for TV ad campaigns. The candidates themselves have been raising money steadily but haven’t yet hit the airwaves. Land has the fundraising advantage with $3.3 million in campaign cash at the end of the year, compared to Peters’ $2.9 million.
The conservative ads started in September before Land even became the leading GOP candidate and competitors were still weighing bids. Pure PAC, funded by former Ross Education Chairman and CEO Paul Mitchell, launched “Pure Washington” ads against Peters painting him as Washington, D.C., insider.
Mitchell recently resigned his post at Pure PAC and became Michigan GOP finance chairman. Campaign records show there’s little left in the committee’s account.
Americans for Prosperity, the biggest player in Senate races nationally, filled the gap with a launch in January in Lansing of its first ad in Michigan tying Peters to Obama’s pledge if you like your plan you can keep it — dubbed the “Lie of the Year” by PolitiFact.
Throughout this six-month period, Democratic groups have not responded. Candidates have received help in other competitive states: Kentucky, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, Iowa and New Hampshire. Michigan has been the only battleground state that has seen no ad spending from Democratic groups, according to a Democratic source who tracks media buys.
In polling this year, Land has consistently been ahead of Peters but within the margin of error — meaning there is a statistical tie. That’s a shift from last fall when early polling showed Peters with an edge.
Democrats counter that Peters’ survival of the ads is a testament to the strength of his candidacy. Land has larger statewide name recognition, yet the ad buys haven’t catapulted her into a lead greater than the polls’ margin of error, they argue.
“Land does not have a lead, that’s a huge problem for her,” said Justin Barasky, national press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Land’s spokeswoman Heather Swift says Land has the lead in the recent polls because she can be trusted.
“The more folks across Michigan learn about Gary Peters and his shameful record, the more they learn that they cannot trust him,” Swift said.
Land, the former Republican National Committeewoman from Michigan, has kept a low profile compared with Peters since launching her candidacy last year. Peters has been campaigning the state when on break from Congress and recently completed a chilly Upper Peninsula swing.
Peters’ spokeswoman Haley Morris said his grassroots efforts and public events are what set him apart. “Meanwhile, former RNC Committeewoman Terri Lynn Land continues to hide behind ads secretly paid for by the Koch brothers,” she said.
But more than eight months remain until the November election, and the Senate Majority PAC’s planned ad could open up the door for more spending. Americans for Prosperity says it’s committed to Michigan.
“We’re going to be very involved straight through,” Phillips said.