MAGA conservative political committee Our American Century has spent more than $800,000 trying to keep Democratic Senator Patty Murray out of office, including a big chunk of change for one ad praising her—kind of.
As aggregate polls begin to show Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley closing the gap between her and Washington’s 30-year incumbent, consultants say that the independents and undecideds will make the final call in the usually deep-blue state. Our American Century’s quirky, sarcastic ad might help bring those voters to Smiley’s side. Or it might be a big, confusing waste of money.
The 30-second television ad starts with the cheery, upbeat strumming of an acoustic guitar. Over the happy little tune, a speaker starts praising Murray for her loyalty to President Joe Biden while images of the two Democrats roll underneath. The ad asserts that Murray is not like the more independent (secretly Republican) Democrats, Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, because she votes with Biden 96% of the time, including on issues such as student loan forgiveness and immigration reform.
Then, it starts to become clear that this ad does not aim to boost turnout among the suburban liberals who fell for Biden in the Obama days. The speaker calls Murray a “committed progressive,” which, in the context of the ad, means she’s on the cringe side of the culture war. In quick succession, the speaker associates her with critical race theory, combating white supremacy, and Rachel Levine, the nation’s highest-ranking openly transgender official, all of which trigger the internet’s grill-pilled denizens.
Smiley Keepin’ It Smiley
According to Republican political consultant Alex Hays, the MAGA heads at Our American Century want to use this ad to scoop up votes from independents and other undecideds.
The ad’s chipper tone primes the audience for a tired list of Murray’s accolades, but its substance casts her as a Biden drone who wants to turn your children into trans critical race theorists. This confusion between tone and content makes viewers do a double-take.
Hays said that double-take move works well because it attacks Murray while avoiding the tropes of negative smear ads–black and white photos, B-roll of crime, suspenseful music, etc. Those tropes, studies show, don’t do much to move voters and can hurt a candidate’s reputation.
Better yet, when the viewer catches on to the true anti-Murray message in the seemingly positive ad, they might feel a little clever. Sort of like those guys who think watching Rick and Morty makes them deep.
Hit and/or Miss Messaging
Even if the intellectuals like the concept, some of the messaging might not land, Hays said. He said independents in Washington are more sympathetic to social issues than independents elsewhere. Maybe independents in a redder state would freak out about Murray not actively hating trans people, but in Washington it feels more like a desperate attempt to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks.
Murray’s team said as much.
“Once again, Republicans are throwing pretty much everything at the wall to prop up Mitch McConnell’s favorite recruit of the cycle, Tiffany Smiley, and push an agenda that’s wrong for Washington state and the country,” her spokesperson said in email.
However, the ad caught on to one very important narrative that could impact the election, Hays said. People fucking hate Biden.
According to FiveThirtyEight, 53.4% of Americans disapprove of the president. He’s a hair more well-liked than former president Donald Trump was at this point in their respective presidencies, but Democratic presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton had higher approval ratings by about three to four percentage points at day 652 in office, and former President George W. Bush has Biden beat by 20 points.
With Biden’s poor reception, the ad doesn’t even need to name the Republican candidate. It just needs to remind viewers how much you hate Biden and therefore Democrats, including Murray, according to Hays.
“People really don’t know who Tiffany Smiley is, and they probably won’t learn who she is during the campaign. Almost all of the vote is a response to Patty Murray and her 30-year incumbency,” he said.
It’s basically the Republican version of the lesser-of-two-evils quandary. Independents may not like everything about Smiley, but at least she’s not ridin’ with Biden, and at least she’s a change. Smiley pushes that same messaging herself, taking every opportunity to frame Murray as part of the D.C. establishment.
Murray Can’t Coast!
If Smiley dethrones Murray, it won’t be because of one single ad making independents feel smart.
In general, political television ads are basically useless for persuading voters. They really only serve to increase name recognition for newcomers, according to a Science Advances study. Plus, independents generally flock to challengers anyway, Hays said.
With that in mind, Murray faces the challenge of making sure those undecideds want to keep her in office. As we approach election day, it looks like Murray is still selling herself as the pro-choice candidate. Her campaign mentioned abortion access three times in a short, four-paragraph email response to The Stranger regarding Our American Century’s ad.
But senior campaign staff from Smiley’s campaign said that Murray will lose if she continues to focus primarily on abortion instead of crime and inflation, a global trend Republicans are trying to blame on Biden and the Democrats.
The senior staffer is sorta right. Voter interest in abortion has slightly waned. Polling shows that 28% of expected voters cared most about abortion in July, but this month the same pollsters found that percentage has only dropped two points.
Even if Murray’s strategy still works with the people who have a Ruth Bader Ginsburg bobble head on their standing desks, independents don’t care about abortion so much. Local polling shows that inflation remains their top concern, though 45% of them say they’d be less likely to vote for someone who supports abortion restrictions, and 28% don’t care one way or the other.
Murray’s campaign said its strategy to win independents includes recent ads to promote the senator’s legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs, protect abortion, and protect democracy. No last-ditch efforts to be tough on crime or to scold reckless government spending, though.