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Lisa Herbold, Phil Tavel, Seattle council race
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Rantz: Consultants, activists armed with oppo-research get nasty in Seattle council races

Lisa Herbold and Phil Tavel. (Seattle Channel)

Recent smears in Seattle City Council races have shined a giant spotlight on just how nasty and petty consultants and professional activists can be. Indeed, opposition research has been flaunted on social media in an effort to either protect the establishment or promote new blood. And the tactics almost always follow the same script.

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“A well run political campaign does opposition research on its opponent, or hires a specialized oppo research firm to do it for them,” a Seattle-based Democratic consultant tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. The consultant is not working on a current council race. “It involves doing a comprehensive search of public records and news clips to see if you can find damaging information. Did your opponent not vote in a lot of elections? Are there lawsuits, fines, debts or past controversies?”

The attacks show up in a variety of ways. Progressive small business advocate Egan Orion, running against incumbent Kshama Sawant, is falsely labeled a big business Republican. Small business owner Heidi Willis is falsely smeared as hobnobbing with anti-transit and anti-worker activists.

Driving much of these talking points are a combination of oppo-research and talking points crafted to stay on message long enough for a media outlet to pick up on them, and start a narrative. All sides engage in this.

West Seattle takes center stage

The nastiness is on an unusually public display in District 1 where activists and the incumbent candidate aren’t even hiding their strategy. And it’s happening where an incumbent is unusually vulnerable.

Heather Weiner, a local consultant who helped run the failed Cary Moon for mayor race, has been on a Twitter tear, attacking businessman and public defender Phil Tavel. Weiner supports Tavel’s opponent, incumbent Lisa Herbold. She’s been using petty attacks to smear Tavel, calling him out for traffic infractions, even though Herbold’s record is much worse. Those Tweets get shared by the same group of Seattle activists to give the appearance that the content is spreading.

“Then the campaign shops that information around to political reporters in off the record conversations,” the consultant tells me. “A good reporter doesn’t take that information at face value but then checks it out for themselves to confirm the information before using it.”

Weiner, for example, has pushed the opposition research to local reporters, though Herbold’s campaign says Weiner doesn’t work for them. She’s not the only one. I’ve seen opposition research and memos connected to a number of local campaigns. Some candidates personally pitch stories to reporters.

“Campaigns are always trying to frame the oppo to make it appear as damning as possible,” the Democratic consultant told me. “Sometimes there’s important missing context. A partial quote that is being twisted to sound damning when the full quote in context shows that what the candidate actually said or meant was something much different. Or there’s some explanation for the information that makes it a lot more benign than it might initially look. That’s why it’s important to verify the information.”

The big backfire

Herbold released most of her opposition research against Tavel in a fundraising email, hoping to provide content that, out of context, sounds damning. It backfired spectacularly.

“Since 2001, my opponent has formed twelve businesses that were all dissolved by the State of Washington for non-compliance,” Herbold’s staff shared in a fundraiser email. She then said, “This pattern of recklessness and mismanagement is worrisome on its own.” She’s implying that it’s serious business that Washington state took action to dissolve the business for non-compliance.

This is nothing more than a smear.

Dan Austin is a West Seattle business owner and member of District 1 Neighbors for Small Business, a coalition of over 100 West Seattle small and independent business owners. He tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that the Herbold attack on Tavel is “disingenuous and it’s just incredibly sad.”

“I really think this is blown back up in her face,” Austin told me. “She went after Phil on business license dissolution, which were administratively done, which is actually an incredibly standard way to close your business in the state of Washington. And it brought on a good 12 or 14 more supporters in the last few days [to D1 Neighbors for Small Business] who were shocked that she didn’t know that. Just the basic lack of understanding has driven us to speak out.”

Among the businesses backing Tavel over Herbold: Easy Street Records, The Westy, Mountain to Sounder Outfitters, ZippyDogs, and Peel and Press (Austin’s business).

The gamble

When using oppo-research so openly, candidates are gambling that research conducted on them won’t be used in a damaging way.

For example, in Herbold’s case, her supporters, like Weiner, tried to use traffic infractions against Tavel. But Herbold’s history is worse, including speeding through a school crosswalk and driving on a suspended or revoked driver’s license.

Herbold sped through school crosswalk, had nearly 30 infractions

In Sawant’s case, while she and her supporters imply or directly claim Orion is a Republican (he very much is not) that would hurt worker’s rights, she opens up herself to attacks of mistreating workers. In 2015, Sawant treated her employees as independent contractors, which allowed her to avoid payroll taxes, overtime, and insurance. This is the exact tactic she is known to criticize.

Nothing will change

For as much as anyone complains about the nastiness of campaigning, this is unlikely to change. How they engage, however, might. A study in the journal Marketing Science found negative campaigning works — so long as it’s from the candidate. Per the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (recapping the study):

The study examined political advertising and its impact on the share of the vote in two-party races in 2010 and 2012 U.S. senatorial campaigns. It focused on advertising across the borders of designated marketing areas (DMAs), where discontinuities may exist that lead to different levels of exposure to political advertising. DMAs are typically used by marketers to define marketing areas by town, city or major metropolitan area.

The study authors found that negative advertising is powerful in terms of influencing preferences and voter turnout, but not across the board. When the ads are from the candidates or campaigns themselves, the negative advertising was found to be more effective. When the negative advertising was from Political Action Committees (PACs), it was not as effective.

In other words, Herbold and Sawant’s nastiness might help when they engage in it directly, but when surrogates do it, it could backfire. Sawant seems happy to go to the mattresses against opponents; Herbold says she’ll be positive, while ruthlessly and dishonestly attacking.

Will either approach backfire in passive Seattle? Candidates love to say they’ll campaign positively, while back-channeling stories to the media to hurt their opponents. And voters eat it up, while virtue signaling with proclamations that they’re sick of it.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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