It can be difficult for voters to discern what’s truth and what’s not in campaign ads, and perhaps there’s no better example than in the race for the 24th congressional district. WAER News takes a look at the ads that could be defining the tense race between incumbent Republican John Katko and Democratic challenger Dana Balter in the final days of voting.
Much to the relief of most of us, the ads will come to an end in just a few days. Until then, Le Moyne College Assistant Political Science Professor Jonathan Parent says there will be plenty of negative commercials vying for voter’s attention.
“Unfortunately, it’s probably a rational move for both campaigns to focus on these more personal issues. To the extent there are undecided voters, I would imagine they would be more likely to be swayed by those types of issues rather than whatever happens to be facing the country right now.”
But, of course, it depends who you ask. Congressmember John Katko says his ads go right to the issues.
“She [Dana Balter] wants Medicare for all, which will cause crushing taxes. She wants to repeal the tax cuts, which another tax increase. She’s all in on bail reform, which she knows will come to the federal level if she can help it at all.”
One of Katko’s bail reform ads includes these claims, “…it releases dangerous criminals. Its’ freed sex offenders and caused a spike in violent crime…”
Dana Balter says the commercial is racist.
“The ad starts with the image of a man in a hoodie walking through a suburban neighborhood, and the voiceover says, 'do you want to let dangerous criminals roam free in your streets?' In this moment in our history, when we’re finally having the national reckoning with racial justice that is so long overdue, he’s playing into and amplifying a stereotype that makes young black men in our community less safe.”
Le Moyne's Jonathan Parent agrees that the ad could be seen as racist.
“There are certainly undertones, not overtones in the bail reform ad. There’s a very long history of this law and order being tied to a racist narrative about African Americans in particular, and I think those campaign ads certainly fit into that category.”
Dana Balter has also accused Katko of approving sexist ads.
“Putting multiple women together in one photo, all with their mouths open like they’re angry, making them look like they’re screaming at you. This is feeding into the misogynist stereotypes of hectoring women, women who won’t shut up.”
Again, Le Moyne College Professor Jonathan Parent says the ad seems to fit a certain pattern.
“There’s a really long history at the presidential and congressional levels of women candidates having their looks criticized and made a campaign issue in a way that simply doesn’t happen for male candidates. That is something we’ve seen this year that we haven’t seen that in the past. The images that portray Dana Balter are very unflattering and are meant to criticize her appearance, which is pretty clearly a sexist move.”
But John Katko defends his ads.
“There is absolutely nothing racist or sexist about our ads. She came in hard with negative ads that were pretty outrageous. I’m not having press conferences complaining about it. I just respond. Everything in our ads is factual.”
Including, he says, the one about Balter taking a salary from her campaign account. The issue first arose in the summer of 2019, and has since been resolved. But Katko’s campaign hasn’t let go.
“…After being caught for breaking law for illegally paying herself, Balter still pays herself with her donors’ money…” says the voiceover in a Katko-approved ad.
“This is a crime. Do the research,” Katko told us in an interview. “Of course she’s going to say she made a mistake. The bottom line is, it’s potentially criminal conduct. It certainly would warrant an ethics investigation if she gets into the House of Representatives.”
Balter issued an ad of her own in response, which says in part, “I want you to hear the truth. Candidates are allowed to take a salary because Congress isn’t supposed to be just for people rich enough to go without a paycheck. But I made a mistake in accepting it too early. I took full responsibility and paid it back…”
A 2002 Federal Election Commission rule allows candidates to take a salary as long as its after the filing deadline. The Auburn Citizen reported the FEC declined to take action, and the matter wasn’t referred to an outside agency for criminal prosecution. For his part, Katko has fired back about one of Balter’s ads linking him to president Trump.
“Splicing photos making it look like I’m standing next to Trump, and I’ve never had a picture with him.”
Balter countered that there's a reason the men are in the same image.
“We do not photoshop the congressman into a picture. They’re two different pictures from two different moments, and they’re put side-by-side because the congressman endorses Donald Trump.”
Le Moyne College Assistant Political Science Professor Jonathan Parent feels the photo makes a legitimate point.
“John Katko did make the choice to endorse the president in January. I think that’s a completely reasonable critique of him in a district that Donald Trump frankly lost last time.”
Parent says on balance, Balter is running cleaner ads more focused on the issues, while Katko’s are unusually aggressive for the 24th district race. And, he says as much as the public complains, they’re generally more effective compared to positive ads.