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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Negative ads can work, even in Utah, but Corroon's went too far

Published: Sunday, Oct. 24 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

As the election season winds down, we look at some of the lessons learned and things to watch for.

Despite a vigorous advertising campaign attacking Gov. Gary Herbert, polls show Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon lagging far behind Herbert in the gubernatorial race. Is this further evidence that negative advertising doesn't work in Utah?

Webb: Had Corroon played nice, he would have lost, so he had little choice but to mix it up with Herbert. But Corroon's ads did cross the line into negative advertising and personal attacks. The topics the ads raised, campaign contributions and I-15 contracting problems, are legitimate campaign issues. But Corroon went too far with the creepy voiceover and unflattering, grainy images of Herbert — typical negative advertising tactics.

It has been a very snippy campaign. Corroon did put Herbert on the defensive and got under his skin. But it hasn't been enough. The statewide electoral math is very tough for a Democrat, especially in a big Republican year when the GOP base is energized and Democrats are despondent.

One thing is clear: Corroon won't be getting a VIP invitation to the Inaugural Ball.

Pignanelli: "If you can't say anything bad about someone, don't say anything at all, because it won't get printed..." — Al From. In reaction to the poll results, many politicos expressed pleasure that Utahns rejected negative advertising. This is nonsense. In reality, Utahns have good taste and sour on mediocre commercials, but they enthusiastically embrace quality political attacks. Remember, the 2010 Republican convention and primary contest were slugfests where Bob Bennett, Mike Lee, and Tim Bridgewater were victims and instigators of political hardball.

For decades, Utahns have expressed to pollsters disdain for negative campaign activities and a desire to punish candidates who use them. Despite their protestations, Utahns are persuaded by well-crafted accusations from one candidate against the other. Negative advertisements work because they define the issues and candidates. On a strategic political level, Corroon had to do something to distinguish himself from Herbert. Thus, he threw a "Hail Mary pass" alleging Herbert's favoritism to contributors. Although low-quality productions, the original Corroon commercials fostered discussions regarding the governor's war chest. But his campaign failed to follow through on attacks in formats acceptable to Utah voters (commercials alleging Herbert hated children strained credibility).

Examples where candidates have gone too far include attempts at political character assassination (i.e. Corroon comparing Herbert to disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich; and former Rep. LaVar Christensen alleging that state legislative Democrats do not reflect Utah values). Attacking an opponent's voting record is accepted regardless of negative overtones, but most Utahns cringe when their leaders are painted as Chicago-style political bosses.

Unfortunately for Corroon, his jab solidified Herbert's support among wavering Republicans and independents. On the other hand, many GOP insiders worry Christensen's tactics of mixing religion and politics may offend Salt Lake County independent voters. Continued attacks on Christensen's opponent, Trisha Beck (a devout LDS advocate for the disabled) may trigger the media to remind the public that Utah's moral scandals in the last several years involved... Republicans.

Pignanelli: Lawmakers are grumpy about the Blagojevich crack, but there are more pressing issues at the Capitol. Should Corroon win or garner over 45 percent of the vote, GOP legislative strategists will push to diminish his potential as a contender in 2012.

Webb: Corroon won't be a popular guy at the Legislature. Salt Lake County leaders, in general, need to do a better job at the Legislature. Issues of high priority to other regions of the state are promoted by caucuses of legislators representing those areas.

Legislators from Salt Lake County have made attempts to organize into a caucus with mixed results. Salt Lake County is the state's most politically divided county, and Republicans and Democrats haven't always collaborated as well as they should.

With Corroon in the doghouse, Salt Lake County legislators, local government leaders, and educators will need to unite or county citizens won't be served very well by the Legislature.

Webb: Yes. Republicans may pick up a handful of legislative seats and do better in county races. If Herbert wins Salt Lake County, it will be considered a major victory for Republicans. President Obama narrowly won the county two years ago, and in the last competitive gubernatorial contest, Democrat Scott Matheson beat Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. by 20,000 votes in the county.

Just how big a Republican year it is in Utah may be measured by how well Republicans do in Salt Lake County. A Herbert win would be a big deal.

Pignanelli: Republicans could net gains in several races, but there will not be an overwhelming transformation of the county's political dynamics.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.

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