It’s Desperation Time on the Campaign Trail

by Stuart Rothenberg October 18, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

That odor you smell is the odor of desperation.

Whether it is on the TV show “Mad Men” in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, which has lost a majority of its billings and must sign up new businesses to survive, or from politicians and campaigns who find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion as Election Day approaches, desperation yields unfortunate results.

Campaigns, candidates and even elected officials who should know better say and do bad things.

In Pennsylvania’s 13th district, the campaign of Republican Dee Adcock, who is challenging three-term Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D), recently e-mailed a news release with the subject line “Poll shows tight race in PA 13.”

The memo, which included only a generic ballot, Schwartz’s “re-elect” and an “informed ballot,” repeatedly conveys the impression that the race between the Congresswoman and Adcock, the president of his family’s 50-year-old swimming pools, accessories and supplies distributorship, is very competitive.

I know that when I see a news release in October that states that, “When voters hear where Adcock and Schwartz stand on the issues Adcock wins,” I have stumbled across a campaign that probably has no chance of winning.

“When” or “if” voters hear the contrast? On June 30, Adcock had $285,000 in the bank, compared with $3.3 million for Schwartz.

When I called Adcock’s campaign to get the initial ballot, I was told by a press spokesman that the campaign “isn’t releasing that.” I wasn’t surprised, since I already knew that Republican and Democratic polling showed Schwartz with at least a 20-point lead over the challenger.

Putting it simply, the campaign was lying about the race being close. An overenthusiastic campaign manager or press operation? Probably. Chalk it up to another desperate campaign doing desperate things.

But desperation and bad judgment aren’t limited to just one party.

In the northwest corner of the Keystone State, freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper’s 3rd district campaign was proving that she, too, is more than a little desperate.

The Democratic lawmaker’s Oct. 8 fundraising e-mail asks for contributions because seven outside groups, “some funded by foreign interests from the Middle East,” are running TV spots attacking her.

Candidates have long sought to raise money and energize voters by noting the dollars spent against them and the groups doing the spending. That’s certainly fair game. Republicans tried to define Democrats in 2006 by supporters George Soros and, just as Democrats try to define the GOP as the party of Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell and Karl Rove.

But what’s this about unnamed groups funded from the Middle East? Is she talking about Israelis? Arabs? Muslims? Al-Qaida?

No, she is talking, apparently, about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Dahlkemper and other Democrats are making an issue of the fact that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gets a piddling amount of money from a number of “AmChams,” American Chamber of Commerce affiliates around the world.

There is an AmCham in Paris, and there are others in Barcelona, Spain, São Paulo, Brazil, and in four Australian cities. But Dahlkemper only mentions the Middle East. I guess her campaign figured that saying “foreign interests in Australia” wouldn’t have as big a bang as talking about foreign interests in the Middle East.

This is what we call the political version of “jumping the shark” — a desperate-looking charge that a campaign or a party hopes could be a game-changer.

It’s pretty early for Democrats to jump the shark, and you have to wonder whether this is really the best shot they have in their arsenal. Yes, it might get some folks agitated, but not many. And it reeks of desperation.

President Barack Obama also stepped over the line when he charged that Karl Rove “funded” two Republican groups spending heavily on campaigns this cycle, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS.

Why not simply say Rove was fundraising for the groups, which would have been accurate? Why go the extra step and convey the impression — the incorrect impression — that Rove was the chief source of funds for these organizations? Desperation.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Democratic bloggers, party insiders and campaigns trying to interject other issues into the campaign. But the question is whether the charges are believable and whether voters care about the issues.

Jobs, the economy and spending all resonate with voters, and Democrats need to avoid looking out of touch — or desperate — by talking about matters that voters don’t think are important.