Calculated Risk: The Lincoln Club focuses on negative ads

by Joe Yerardi | inewsource

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Go to your trash bin. Fish out the last political mailer you got. Look in the upper left corner. What do you see? There’s a fair chance that you’ll see this line: “Paid for by The Lincoln Club of San Diego County.”

The Lincoln Club — a 30-year-old, pro-business political advocacy group — has in recent weeks emerged as a big player in the race to choose who will succeed Bob Filner as mayor of San Diego.

inewsource analyzed the organization’s disclosure reports and found The Lincoln Club spent $271,137 between the start of the campaign in August and Oct. 23. Of that amount, the club spent $14,173 supporting Councilman Kevin Faulconer. The rest — $256,964 or 95 percent — was spent opposing Democrat Nathan Fletcher.

That’s a 19-to-1 negative-to-positive split.

One close observer of San Diego’s political scene isn’t surprised.

“The Lincoln Club, like many of the other independent organizations, can pursue the low road without getting the mud splashed on their own candidates,” said Carl Luna, a professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College.

Luna cautions that pushing the negative has potential benefits but also a raft of risks. It’s a back-handed way of promoting your candidate, but it can backfire.

“It’s a strategy that has a short-term tactical advantage but it could be a long-term strategic problem,” Luna said.

A preference for Alvarez

The “low road” has many paths.

The Lincoln Club has launched a Twitter account: No Show Nathan (bio: “Nathan Fletcher chillin’ through life one no-show job at a time”). The organization established the Where is Fletcher? website. The club has purchased internet banner ads.

The massive campaign the Lincoln Club is mounting against Fletcher is all the more striking when compared with its response to the candidacy of the other Democrat in the race: Councilman David Alvarez.

The Lincoln Club hasn’t reported spending one penny opposing him.

Independent Expenditures by The Lincoln Club (through 10/23/13)

Luna says that’s because the Lincoln Club and other pro-Faulconer forces want to face Alvarez — not Fletcher — in a runoff between the two highest vote-getters in November.

“Republican strategists believe that Mr. Alvarez would be easier to defeat in January with a low-turnout election,” Luna said.

That’s because prevailing wisdom says that Alvarez’s base of low-income and minority voters from Barrio Logan is less likely to show up to vote in the runoff that is likely to be held in late January or early February.

Erica Holloway, a spokeswoman for The Lincoln Club, declined to answer questions about the organization’s campaign strategy, saying it “wouldn’t be prudent” to discuss it in the midst of an election.

Targeting Democrats

And while The Lincoln Club has spent aggressively on a variety of messaging outlets, nearly 87 percent of their anti-Fletcher expenditures have been dedicated to a direct mail campaign.

Many of the mailers play up the votes Fletcher missed in the assembly when running for mayor last year and claim he hasn’t shown up for work at Qualcomm. Others emphasize Fletcher’s party-changing from a Republican to an independent and then to a Democrat in less than two years.

The latter messaging effort has included a couple memorable direct mail pieces which question his most recent declaration to be a Democrat.

Among them is one two-sided mailer that shows a photo of Fletcher posing with legendary Republican strategist Karl Rove, accompanied by a quote from Rove: “Nathan Fletcher is a trusted conservative.” On the other side is a pickup truck with a vanity license plate reading “FLETCHER.” From the driver’s side window is a speech bubble with a quote from the candidate: “I stood and voted for an all-cuts budget, not one that reduced welfare but one that eliminated it.” The rear of the vehicle is covered with bumper stickers for the campaigns of George W. Bush, Meg Whitman, Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates of elections past. The message is clear: Nathan Fletcher is a true, blue conservative.

The Lincoln Club’s mission, as declared on its website, is “to advance free market principles and ideas by recruiting, endorsing, and financing business-friendly candidates and ballot measures.”

Among the organization’s largest donors since July 1 are local businesses and businesspeople such as Sudberry Properties Chairman Thomas Sudberry, the Republican Party of San Diego County, as well as the Manchester Financial Group, whose principal, Doug Manchester, owns U-T San Diego.

Contributions to The Lincoln Club (7/1/13-10/23/13)

The Lincoln Club’s messages are clearly targeting Democrats and Luna says it’s all about helping Alvarez get into the runoff with the club’s favorite, Faulconer. Even if Alvarez doesn’t make it, Luna suggests, Fletcher’s image will have been damaged among Democratic voters.

“They’re targeting more poor, Democratic voters trying to say ‘Look, this guy’s [Fletcher’s] not the real Democrat,” said Luna. “‘Go vote for the one over there, Mr. Alvarez,’ knowing you have an easier chance to defeat him.”

The negative strategy can be a win-win, Luna said.

“You get either a weak Alvarez or a damaged Fletcher (in a runoff),” he said. “So, if you look at it that way, it’s an absolutely brilliant strategy.”

Smearing your own people

There also are dangers.

“In order to smear Fletcher, you’re smearing a lot of your own people,” said Luna.

That’s because Fletcher — as a moderate Republican-turned-Democrat — counts among his supporters many in the business community — the very community whose interests The Lincoln Club promotes.

That tension was illustrated by the public dust-up created by a Lincoln Club mailer suggesting that Fletcher, as an assemblyman, supported a tax break favorable to Qualcomm, while voting to increase taxes on Qualcomm’s competitors. The mailer said he was then given a “$400,000 no-show job” after he left Sacramento.

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Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs fired back in an open letter to The Lincoln Club’s chairman, William Lynch.

In the letter, Jacobs — who’s given $51,000 to Fletcher and an independent committee supporting him — wrote that he was “outraged to learn that the Lincoln Club of San Diego — a supposedly pro-business political group — would fund a political hit piece that unfairly and incorrectly attacks one of San Diego’s largest employers.”

Lynch — in an open letter to Jacobs the next day — stood by the mailer’s claims, but added that “we believe Qualcomm is a very valuable corporate citizen” and that “the mailers in question were not to suggest otherwise.”

Luna said the incident offered a warning as to the sensitive political waters this pro-business political advocacy group must navigate in its efforts to take down Nathan Fletcher.

About The Author

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Questions, tips or suggestions? Email reporter Joe Yerardi at joeyerardi@inewsource.org or call him at 619.594.5321. Follow Joe on Twitter at @JoeYerardi.

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About Joe Yerardi

Joe Yerardi is an investigative reporter and data specialist at inewsource. To contact him with questions, tips or corrections, email joeyerardi@inewsource.org or call (619) 594-5321.

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