Negative ads shake up 2014 GOP primary battles

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What has otherwise been a fairly sleepy primary cycle suddenly started to wake up in the past week, when negative ads from an otherwise soft-spoken veteran lawmaker hit the airwaves in Indianapolis.

House Education Chairman Robert Behning, a veteran Republican, is facing one of his toughest election challenges from a union electrician, Michael Scott. Behning launched a series of ads dubbing his opponent a "liberal politician." The spots, which began airing last week in central Indiana, show Scott alongside pictures of President Barack Obama and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"Michael Scott's campaign has been supported by some of the same groups that support Barack Obama," says the announcer.

The ads are hitting just days ahead of Tuesday's primary.

It's the type of ad that seemed more likely to show up two years ago, during the nasty intraparty fight between then-U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Yet this year's Statehouse fights have proven to be some of the most visceral the state has seen.

The Behning television ads carry a message that has been playing out in mailboxes across the state for months now — bitter Republican primary battles with accusations of "liberalism" and stark questions of conservative bona fides.

Indiana tea party leader Monica Boyer said the pieces she's seeing are on par with the hits landed in the Mourdock-Lugar primary. Boyer is backing Curt Nisly's challenge of Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-Syracuse. Nisly's campaign has become something of a magnet for social conservatives and unions, while Kubacki is being backed by business groups and the House Republican Campaign Committee.

The fight in this northern Indiana district has played out largely in the pages of The Elkhart Truth, The Goshen News and other newspapers. Boyer accused Kubacki of targeting her family in a full-page ad.

"There's low campaigning, and then there's just low campaigning," Boyer said.

However, in the ad, which ran in The Times-Union of Warsaw, Kubacki blames Boyer for the escalation and says she was the one who dragged family into the fight.

"The vast majority of these hateful letters that have been running for weeks in the newspaper are actually submitted by various Boyer family members," Kubacki writes. "Day after day, one hateful, critical letter after another."

On the other side of the state, in southwest Indiana, the in-party battling has been escalating for well more than a year. Sen. John Waterman, R-Shelburn, is fending off a strong challenge from Washington, Ind., Councilman Eric Bassler.

The tea party-aligned Americans for Prosperity recently went on the air against Waterman, accusing him of voting against "economic freedom" during his time in the Senate.

Behind the scenes, the race is proving the politics-as-strange-bedfellows axiom: It pits the leaders of the Indiana Senate and union leaders against a mix of business and tea party interests. Republican operative Cam Savage, one of the staffers who downloaded campaign material onto a Statehouse computer while working for former schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, is fighting Waterman alongside some of the same tea partyers who helped oust Bennett in 2012.

The Behning, Waterman and Kubacki battles have drawn countless thousands of dollars in spending from both sides. The exact amounts are difficult to track in part because Indiana's campaign finance laws do not require the groups to say immediately how much they're spending.

As for one of the most civil primary battles thus far? House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner's opponent has chosen to focus on concerns about drug abuse and agricultural technology instead of ethics questions about Turner's efforts to protect his family's business interests by lobbying against a proposed nursing home construction ban.

"It just seems like there's a lot of things the Statehouse is focusing on that are not necessarily relevant to the district," said Parvin Gillim, a Sheridan architect.

The most visceral attacks in the various campaigns have come from outside groups allied with respective campaigns — a standard political tactic that allows the candidates to say they have nothing to do with the attacks. The Gillim-Turner battle has drawn almost no attention from those outside groups.

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