Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker’s new statewide TV ad hits the trifecta, touching on three hot-buttons issues in this election cycle: transportation spending, earmarks and ties to a Democratic Party whose popularity has sagged.
In a direct-mail piece, radio ad and TV spot, Walker mocks GOP rival Mark Neumann’s claim that he is a true conservative and Washington outsider crusading against wasteful spending. Following a national Republican strategy of tying Democratic candidates to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Walker aims to do the same with Republican Neumann, who served two terms in Congress in the 1990s.
Is the Neumann-Pelosi comparison accurate?
Let’s focus on the TV ad, which echoes the approach on the radio and in direct mail.
It features a crude hand puppet figure of Neumann, his eyes shifting. It ticks off a series of complaints, all focused on a single 1998 vote on a controversial transportation spending bill:
"Mark Neumann says he’s against big government spending," the ad begins. "But in 1998, Congressman Neumann voted for one of the largest transportation bills in history. A bill that contained $9 billion in pork barrel spending. Including funding for the infamous bridge to nowhere.
And a highway in Canada. You know who else voted for that $9 billion in pork barrel spending?
As a Pelosi puppet pops out from behind Neumann, the narrator says: "Take a closer look at Mark Neumann. Remind you of anyone?"
(Note: On Sept. 8, the Walker campaign changed the ending of the ad to say Neumann's excuse for the vote was that lots of others voted for it, too. The ad retained the Pelosi image. A new direct mail piece continued to use the "remind you of anyone?" line.)
With the Sept. 14 primary approaching, Walker is also running a second radio ad, making a similar link based on a different bill.
The point of the ads is more sweeping than comparing individual votes. Walker is likening Neumann to Pelosi. So in this item, we'll be examining whether he is correct to equate them.
Neumann did join Pelosi and 295 other House members in backing the transportation bill. There were 86 votes against it. The exact tally: 143 Republicans in favor, 56 against. On the Democratic side, 153 supported and 30 voted no. One independent voted aye, according to congressional records.
The bill was described by the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post as the largest transportation legislation in history. Media accounts also scored the bill as one of the most pork-laden of all time, funding $9 billion in "special projects." Critics and defenders argued over the need for many of them. The most famous, of course, was the "bridge to nowhere"in Alaska -- a familiar topic to political watchers.
A big majority of both parties voted for the bill. In the Wisconsin delegation, three Republicans supported it, and one was opposed. Among state Democrats, three supported it and two voted no (including Tom Barrett, now running for governor). Their reasons were all over the map, creating a list of strange bedfellows.
For instance, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) opposed the bill. But then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) -- a prominent conservative -- supported it, along with Neumann. Armey is now a leader of the tea party movement.
How wide-ranging was the bill?
Scott Walker himself, then a member of the state Assembly, applauded a piece of it -- sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac) -- that lifted a requirement that $241 million in federal money be used on either a light rail system or freeway bus and car-pool lanes in the East-West Corridor between Milwaukee and Waukesha.
Walker spoke up in the week after the bill passed, as the leader of a bipartisan group of six Milwaukee County lawmakers.
The ad is correct in stating Neumann voted for the measure.
Neumann said he liked a provision in the bill that assured the federal share of the gas tax wouldn’t be used for other purposes. The legislation included a "minimum guarantee," according to a U.S. House committee report, to make sure states received more funding.
Now let’s look at the Neumann and Pelosi comparison.
Walker’s campaign says the ad does not try to tag Pelosi and Neumann as kindred voters, except for on this particular vote. But that is the implication of the ad.
And it’s a reach.
Pelosi, House speaker since January 2007, was not in a leadership position at the time. In fact, Republicans controlled the chamber.
On most important votes involving spending and taxes, Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, and Neumann, who represented southern Wisconsin, were polar opposites.
During his four years in Congress from 1995 to 1998, Neumann earned an "A" grade from the National Taxpayers Union, a group that believes taxpayers are overburdened and pushes for reforms in the federal tax system.
During those same years, Pelosi earned an "F."
The group says an "A" indicates the legislator is "one of the strongest supporters of responsible tax and spending policies." By contrast, an "F" means the lawmaker is a "big spender."
We turned to the Washington Post’s database of votes to sample Neumann and Pelosi’s record in the 105th Congress, the one in which the 1998 vote occurred. Of the 17 pieces of legislation deemed most prominent, Neumann and Pelosi agreed on six.
The bills included four appropriations measures, an IRS reform bill and the transportation bill. On the six, Congress was nearly unanimous in approving three. In all but one -- an appropriations bill -- Neumann voted with the GOP majority.
All told, in the 105th Congress, Pelosi voted with her party 89.9 percent of the time, the Post data shows. Neumann voted with Republicans on 86.6 percent, the Post data shows.
So, where does that leave us?
Walker’s claims on Neumann’s support of the transportation bill are accurate. The vote involved a major spending bill that drew a lot of attention, and Neumann does not dispute he supported it.
But the ad suggests something much larger, that Neumann and Pelosi are somehow ideologically matched. Based on the ratings from an outside group and the lawmakers’ voting record, the two rarely lined up. Indeed, by the standard of linking them on a single vote, Neumann could as easily have been paired with Armey as Pelosi.
Using Walker’s logic, Walker could have linked himself to Pelosi. After all, he supported a provision in the bill at the time. Walker wouldn’t agree with that comparison. And we don’t agree with the Neumann-Pelosi one. We rate the connection False.