Hail Mary Ads in Dakota

Posted September 8, 2004 at 6:24pm

Seeking to invigorate his so-far dormant Senate campaign, North Dakota attorney Mike Liffrig (R) has launched a series of controversial ads attacking Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) on the emotional topics of gay marriage and human cloning.

The ads, which have been running in the state for 10 days and are scheduled to remain on the air through at least tomorrow, paint Dorgan as out of touch with North Dakota values.

In one, several heterosexual couples are shown kissing as “Here Comes the Bride” plays in the background. Then two men are shown about to kiss, an image followed by two men and a woman trying to get married.

“You can kiss our North Dakota values goodbye or you can kiss Senator Dorgan goodbye,” says the ad’s narrator.

Jon Zahm, Liffrig’s campaign manager, said the ads are an attempt to send a message to Dorgan.

“Mike doesn’t cower or back down to Senator Dorgan,” said Zahm. “Kid gloves have been used on him. … He has not been challenged for his out-of-the-mainstream views.”

Dorgan media consultant Jim Margolis called both the content and the tenor of the ads a “tremendous mistake.”

Liffrig’s “campaign will begin and end in many respects this week,” he predicted.

Liffrig’s ads are seen in political circles as a “Hail Mary” pass in a long-shot race against Dorgan.

National Republicans were initially optimistic about their chances in this GOP-leaning state, but saw those hopes dashed when former Gov. Ed Schafer (R) refused to run.

Liffrig stepped into the void but has generated little excitement among national Republicans.

As of June 30, Dorgan had $2.2 million in the bank compared to just $151,000 for Liffrig.

That fundraising disparity explains why Liffrig chose not to follow a more traditional campaign advertising arc, beginning with positive biographical spots about himself, before launching into a full frontal attack on his opponent, Zahm said.

“In terms of a limited budget, we don’t have the luxury of doing that,” he said. “As it stands now we believe people don’t know the Senator’s record and we’ve decided to use our limited funds to introduce people to that record.”

While the first ad hits Dorgan on gay marriage, the second features a group of children gathered around a campfire as an older man tells them a “scary story” that “Byron wanted to clone and grow babies inside of moms, then harvest their organs and transplant them into others.”

Margolis decried the ads as “a complete twisting of the truth.”

While Dorgan does oppose a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, he does not support the idea of homosexuals being allowed to marry.

Even so, Liffrig may gain some traction on the issue as a state constitutional amendment that seeks to ban gay marriage is set to appear on the November ballot after recently securing the necessary 25,688 signatures.

On cloning, Margolis pointed out that Dorgan introduced the Human Cloning Prohibition Act in the Senate.

Dorgan has responded to Liffrig’s ads with three commercials of his own, including one that includes editorial condemnations of the Republican’s spots by the Fargo Forum and the Grand Forks Herald.

The ultimate impact of the ads remains to be seen, but on this question, the two sides —not surprisingly — disagree. Democrats believe Liffrig’s ads are likely to scare away moderate GOPers and Republican-leaning independents from his column, ensuring his defeat.

“People that would have been inclined to support him will be very hesitant to lend their name to this kind of campaign,” Margolis predicted.

Not so, insisted Zahm, who said “the feedback has been excellent.”

“We expect [Gov. John] Hoeven [R] to break 60 percent and President Bush to be in the low 60s [on Election Day],” Zahm said. “If we keep those votes in our column, we win this election.”

Bush carried North Dakota with 61 percent in 2000; Republicans control six of the nine statewide offices and have solid majorities in the state House and Senate. But the state’s voters have also sent an all-Democratic federal delegation to Washington since the 1980s.

Zahm acknowledged that Liffrig’s ads likely alienate the Democratic base but argued that those people never would have voted for a Republican anyway.

“We are going to get our share of the independent votes, and so will the Senator,” he added.

According to a Dorgan poll in the field at the beginning of August, the Senator led Liffrig 65 percent to 26 percent. That margin is only slightly higher than the percentages Dorgan won with in 1992 and 1998. He took 59 percent in the 1992 open-seat contest and 63 percent in his first re-election bid six years later.