The Ron Gidwitz campaign had a stark warning for Judy Baar Topinka last week. "If you think this ad is tough, just wait."
Gidwitz, who is running for governor as a Republican, aired the first negative ad of the campaign last week, then dismissed Topinka's rebuttals as mere whining and vowed he would ignore any attempt by the Illinois Republican Party to browbeat them into pulling the spot.
The Gidwitz ad claims that Topinka "doubled spending" in her office, approved billions in new borrowing and proposed a sales tax increase.
Only one of the charges is completely true.
The doubled spending claim is particularly onerous and one that can't possibly be made with a straight face. The Gidwitz campaign claims Topinka's payroll costs doubled since she took office in 1995, which is technically true, but doesn't take into account that two state programs were transferred to the treasurer's office during that time and that she drastically reduced headcount and administrative costs after she took control.
Topinka is also required by law to sign off on longterm borrowing plans when both chambers approve and the governor signs them into law. And she did back a sales tax increase when she was in the state Senate, but that was a compromise floated in order to reduce the "granny tax" on nursing home beds.
More negative ads are planned, however, and the Gidwitz campaign broadly hinted last that the current spot is tame by comparison.
During one recent conversation with the campaign, an analogy was made between the Gidwitz advertising plan and the House Republican's 2004 assault on former Democratic state Rep. Bill Grunloh. Grunloh, an appointed legislator, was repeatedly battered and beaten during the '04 campaign. His brief voting record was picked apart and distorted, his family business ties were vilified, his integrity just about wiped out. By the end, Grunloh was reduced to publicly pleading that the negative attacks cease. Pretty please. He was clobbered at the polls.
But a couple of months ago, State Republican Party Chairman Andy McKenna asked that all the candidates play fair and avoid negative assaults. He also indicated that he would try to referee disputes between them.
A couple of days after the Gidwitz ad appeared, the Republican state central committee held an emergency meeting to discuss the Gidwitz attack. Topinka had requested the meeting.
The meeting resulted in the first-ever rebuke by the Republican state central committee of a GOP gubernatorial candidate, but was immediately met with a defiant response. Gidwitz refused to pull or alter the ad.
"In our opinion, questions exist about the accuracy of the charges in your current advertisement that need to be resolved," wrote party chairman Andy McKenna on behalf of the state party's central committee. The diplomatically worded, but nonetheless unprecedented letter urged Gidwitz to produce documentation to defend his charges, and if he can't, "we respectfully request that you edit the content of the message to accurately and truthfully reflect your opponent's record."
Gidwitz eventually released a statement that accused Topinka of hiding behind "Republican Party insiders" instead of defending her record, adding, "If she can't stand on her own two feet, she certainly can't clean up the mess in Springfield."
Whatever happens, the reality is that far more people will see the Gidwitz ad than will hear or read about the party's rebuke, so the conflict will stay mostly among political wonks. A political strategist friend points out that the negative attacks will undoubtedly hurt Topinka, but said he has his doubts that Gidwitz can win.
Negative ads tend to send voters flocking to other candidates, away from both the attacker and the attackee. A strong, consistently positive campaign by conservative Republican candidate Jim Oberweis, my friend said, could drive voters to him.
I'm not so sure about that last part since Oberweis' negatives are so high because of his antics in previous campaigns. But unless Bill Brady, the fourth candidate in the race, can raise a whole lot of money very fast, then Oberweis will likely drive his numbers up with his new positive ad. Other voters may just head to the "undecided" column to wait and see what happens next.
The Gidwitz campaign has been making a big deal out of alleged ethics issues with Topinka, so that might be the next TV assault. Stay tuned.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at thecapitolfaxblog.com