Snow leafs through the discarded sea of political attack ads that peppered Western North Carolina mailboxes that day and carries a few home to add his growing souvenir collection.
Voters in the seven western counties have been awash in more than two dozen mailers in recent weeks in the bitter, neck-to-neck battle between Snow and his Republican opponent, Sen. Jim Davis.
The race is a rematch in more ways than one. When the men ran against each other two years ago, Davis pulled out a slim victory of fewer than 200 votes to unseat Snow, a three-term sitting senator at the time with a long tenure as a State District Court judge.
“When he lost, we all went, ‘How the hell did that happen?’” said Louis Vitale, a Democrat and rental property manager in Franklin.
The answer is money — enough money to fuel an aggressive campaign marked by TV attack ads and a heap of negative mailers lambasting Snow.
“It is really frustrating in a sense. They have so much money they can do whatever they want with these things,” Snow said. “It is effective. When you keep bombarding people with that, they say ‘I’m not voting for him.’ After a while it takes a toll on you.”
The contest in 2010 produced an equally dizzying number of mailers. About 25 flyers were sent out that year by Davis or on Davis’ behalf. The count could be similar this year. So far this year, Snow has tallied 20, but there’s still two weeks to go.
Snow has joined the flyer fray, sending out three of his own, and another three sent by outside groups trying to help Snow by attacking Davis.
That is an important point to Davis, who said the criticism against his flyers is unfounded. The gripe appears to be simply that Davis has more financial backing at his disposal.
“What they think makes it not fair is that John Snow has not been able to raise any money and we have,” Davis said. “That’s why they are crying foul.”
The roughly 20 flyers sent out on Davis’ behalf so far have all been funded by the state Republican Party. What’s wrong with that, Davis asked.
“I am very complimented by the fact the GOP caucus is investing a lot of money in this race. That shows that they want me back,” Davis said. “And hey, that’s part of the ballgame.”
Davis was quick to point out that Snow at one time engaged in the same big-money campaign himself. Snow spent $700,000 the first year he ran for office and defeated longtime Republican Sen. Bob Carpenter, Davis said.
“Why is it suddenly terrible it is happening this time?” Davis asked.
As a registered Democrat, Snow doesn’t get many of the attack ads himself. Most target households of registered independents and Republicans. But Snow has amassed quite the collection, thanks in part to his daughters who are both married to Republicans.
“They call and say, ‘Well daddy, we got another one,’ and then run up here and bring it to me,” Snow said.
He adds them to the pile in his home office, a small room cluttered with boxes of files from his Senate days and piles of newspaper clippings.
“I call it my hole,” Snow said. “I can just barely get to my computer.”
Snow’s supporters hopes voters won’t be swayed by the flyers.
“Voters know better. They can’t be bought, and they can’t be purchased,” said Walton Robinson, communications director with the N.C. Democratic Party. “I think people will see through this avalanche of cash to what is going on here. I don’t think people like it or take kindly to it.”
To Republicans, however, it’s a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. Democrats send out mailers. Democrats run attack ads. Democrats even get help from outside groups.
But they cry foul if Republicans do the same thing.
“I think fair is in the eye of the beholder,” said Francis DeLuca, president of Civitas, a conservative think-tank based in Raleigh.
Campaigners are in the business of getting their message out — whether it’s the pros of their own candidate or cons of the opponent. And flyers and ads are the chief mechanism to do that.
“That’s what happens in every election,” DeLuca said. “In a campaign, spending is good because it informs voters. People who are saying all these mailers are unfair — what they are saying is they want people to have less information.”
Critics of the negative campaign ads promulgated against Snow don’t merely take issue with the amount of spending for Davis, however — it’s the source. A huge influx of money from outside groups was pumped into Davis’ race in 2010. Roughly $265,000 in outside money was spent on Davis’ behalf that year.
Davis wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of third-party campaigning. Outside groups with a conservative agenda pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into a host of state races in 2010.
One outside group in particular called Real Jobs spent $1.5 million targeting 22 Democrats in state races in 2010. Their efforts were successful by any measure: 16 of the 22 Democrats they targeted ultimately lost.
The well-orchestrated strategy helped pull off a Republican takeover of North Carolina’s General Assembly for the first time in 140 years.
The campaigning paid for by outside money is arguably the chief factor that tipped the scales for Davis and helped him eke out his narrow victory. That’s something both sides — as well as non-partisan groups — can agree on.
“Based on the results in the races they participated in, I think they had an impact,” said John Rustin, executive director of the non-partisan Free Enterprise Foundation in Raleigh.
To its critics, the influence of outside money is troublesome.
“It is moving us further and further away from the idea of one person, one vote,” said Chris Kromm, the director of the Institute for Southern Studies based in Durham. “Those people putting that money into the system, they are smart business people who want a good return on their investment. The idea that if you have a big bank account you have a big say in our democracy — that’s a problem.”
North Carolina’s legislative seats, it seemed, could simply be auctioned off to the highest bidder, Kromm said.
To Republicans, however, their message simply resonated with voters.
Davis said his tiny margin of victory two years ago showed just how much of an uphill battle he faced going up against a longtime judge and six-year sitting state senator. He had no choice but to run a proactive campaign.
“I had been a Macon County commissioner for 10 years but other than that nobody knew me. I had to work hard to get name recognition,” Davis said. “It worked. It barely worked, but it worked.”
Davis said Snow has avoided public forums and debates this election season. Davis and Snow shared the table at three forums, but Davis wanted more — one in each of the seven counties, and Snow was unwilling.
“If he doesn’t want to step up and have a debate and define himself, then we will unleash the advertising to characterize him,” Davis said.
Davis said critics of the mailers are ignoring the heart of the matter: that Snow’s record in Raleigh isn’t one to be proud of.
Turning the tables
Snow has benefited from outside money as well.
“It is rank hypocrisy for John Snow to make up conspiracy theories about outside money when right now he is benefiting from a lot of left-wing outside money,” said Ray Martin, a campaign strategist with the N.C. Republican Party.
At least three flyers attacking Davis have been circulated by an outside group, a liberal organization called Common Sense Matters. Common Sense Matters has waded into several legislative races, sending out negative flyers attacking Republican candidates.
Those attacking Davis claim he is hurting seniors and children. One decrying budget cuts to in-home care for seniors pictures a sad image of a lonely elderly man in a wheelchair, sentenced to spend the rest of his days in a nursing home thanks to Davis. Another blames Republican tax breaks for business owners for prompting cuts to education. A herd of cattle is accompanied by the message, “Because of Jim Davis, our kids are being herded into classrooms like cattle.”
Common Sense Matters declined an interview for this article. Martin summed up Common Sense as “a hodgepodge of far-left special interest groups.” Common Sense backers include the League of Conservation Voters and the N.C. Association of Educators.
For the record, Martin thinks the flyers attacking Davis are a misrepresentation.
“I think they are extremely misleading, and it distorts the record in the Senate,” Martin said.
And also for the record, Snow feels the same away about the attack ads against him.
Snow, however, said he had no part — indeed no knowledge of — the Davis attack ads sent by outside groups in his behalf.
“I didn’t have any knowledge those were coming,” Snow said. “They pay for it and produce it. You have no control over that.”
It’s a common claim by candidates. And it is likely true that they aren’t privy to the campaign literature crafted by outside groups.
In fact, “it would be illegal if they were privy to it. The ads or mailers or whatever they do have to be done completely independent of the candidate,” said John Rustin, executive director of the Free Enterprise Foundation in Raleigh.
They can’t even send the candidate an advance copy of the flyer as a courtesy, let alone run their idea for a flyer past the candidate first.
“Out of an abundance of caution it would be prudent for any group engaging in these to be very, very cautious about the conversations they have, not only with candidates but also any candidate consultants,” Rustin said.
Outside groups set up their own firewalls on who can even speak to who.
When it comes to his own campaign message, Snow has stuck with a positive message about his own candidacy.
Snow has sent out three flyers of his own, paid for by himself or with help from the N.C. Democratic Party. Despite the effectiveness of attack ads with swing voters, Snow said he had to be judicious.
“I didn’t want to do the same kind of thing he was doing,” Snow said. “I didn’t want to spend my money attacking Davis.”
Indeed, given Snow’s limited war chest, he didn’t have the same leeway to pepper voters with the number of flyers coming from Davis’ camp. So he had to choose his message.
Do they work?
While Americans collectively decry the prevalent role of attack ads in the political landscape these days, the simple fact remains: they work.
“I think they can mobilize people who are already going to vote, and I think they are effective at doing that. If you are a Republican who might or might not vote and you receive a series of these, it could mobilize you to vote,” Cooper said of the attack mailers.
Studies have proven the take home message in attack ads sticks in voters’ heads better than positive ads, Cooper said.
Ray Martin, a campaign strategist with the N.C. Republican Party, defended the so-called attack ads. Voters need to know who the real Snow is, he said.
“John Snow talks like a conservative Democrat and wants voters to believe he is a conservative Democrat, but if you look at his record, it is clear every time he came to Raleigh he sort of morphed into an Asheville liberal,” Martin said.
To be fair, not all of Davis’ roughly 20 flyers have been negative ads against Snow. A few focus on why Davis is a good choice. But, that message alone isn’t enough, Martin said.
Criticism over the amount of campaign spending is a red-herring, Martin said.
“John Snow’s problem is not the money. He wants to distract you from the record he has that he can’t defend,” Martin said.
Nonetheless, voters at large profess nearly universal disdain for attack ads. The N.C. Democratic Party in Raleigh has stockpiled its own stash of attack ads against Snow for precisely that reason.
“People in this case sent them to us because they were so outraged by the contents,” said Walton Robinson, the communications director for the state Democratic Party. “People mail them to the Democratic headquarters with a note that says, ‘This is disgusting. I can’t believe the Republicans are doing this to him.’”
Robinson was optimistic the negative ads against Snow would backfire on Davis this go around.
“The reality is Republicans just dumped a smokescreen of money into the campaign in 2010. That worked,” Robinson said. “I think a lot of people look back and say, ‘That was a lot of negative campaigning and not a lot of substance.’”
The anti-Snow flyers are clearly aimed at people’s subconscious, according to Louis Vitale, a Macon County Democrat and Snow supporter. Their message is simplistic. Snow equals Obama. Snow equals higher taxes. Snow equals higher debt.
“The country is pretty much split on 45-45. They are pretty much set in stone, so we are dealing with the other 10 percent,” Vitale said.
And those 10 percent are most likely to be what Vitale calls “low-information voters.” They haven’t followed current issues enough to know where they stand and thus, are vulnerable to be influenced by a flyer in the first place.
“That’s why the level of argument has gotten to third grade level or less, and the fliers feed right into that,” Vitale said. “It is not about the issues or candidates. It is about emotion.”
Davis’ supporters feel differently, however.
“I was not put off by them at all,” said Carla Miller, a volunteer with the Republican Party in Davis’ hometown of Franklin.
In fact, Miller disagrees that the flyers are attack ads at all.
“I feel very strongly a record is a record,” said Miller, a retired teacher. “If you don’t want your record delineated on a piece of marketing collateral then you have a problem.”
Miller likewise defends the campaign spending by the Republican Party on Davis’ behalf.
“The party considers him a very bright star and so I am not surprised that the N.C. GOP has paid for some advertisement,” Miller said.
Truth be told
To Snow, however, the characterizations in the flyers are anything but accurate. The flyers denouncing Snow portray him as a leftist liberal, in lockstep with Obama. Several feature cut-outs of Snow’s head flanked by Obama.
But Snow says he’s not liberal.
“If there was a conservative Democrat in the legislature I was the one,” Snow said. “They said I was liberal, and that just burns me up.”
Snow is morally opposed to abortion except in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life is at risk. Yet a flyer accuses him of supporting taxpayer-funded abortions. Snow supports the death penalty, yet a flyer accuses him of letting child rapists off death row.
He is opposed to gay marriage, and even signed on as a sponsor to a marriage amendment bill.
“A lot of Democrats don’t like that I did that,” Snow said.
As for the frivolous spending he is accused of? Many were line items in the state’s budget, and so by voting for the budget, he indeed voted for those things — but only in a de facto sort of way, he said.
Snow points to one blatant falsehood out of all the mailers, however. One flyer claimed Snow voted for a bill dealing with sex education programs in public schools. The bill required schools to offer both abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education beginning in the seventh grade but allows parents to choose which version they want their kids to get.
Snow, in fact, didn’t vote for that bill. After getting the flyer, he wrote the legislative clerk and Raleigh and asked for a certified copy of the voting record to be sure there wasn’t somehow an error in the voting record.
“I knew I didn’t vote for it. I was one of only three Democrats that voted against the bill because I didn’t like it,” Snow said.
But Snow said his hands — and his wallet — are tied.
“I don’t have the money to answer every one of those things and don’t intend to,” Snow said. “I am just wore out with all the money part of it.”
Davis vs. Snow, Round Two
The race between Republican Jim Davis and Democrat John Snow to represent the seven western counties is a rematch from 2010. That year, Davis was the challenger, narrowly unseating Snow by less than 200 votes — a margin of less than 1 percent. This year, Snow wants his seat back.
The race is expected to be just as close this year. A recent automated telephone poll conducted on a single day last week showed the race was officially too close to call. The poll, conducted by Strategic Insights Survey, queried 400 voters in the seven western counties. Davis was ahead by 1 percent, but the poll has margin of error of 5 percent. Of those polled, 8 percent were still undecided, 46.5 percent said they favored Davis and 45.5 percent said they favored Snow.