Residents of Wisconsin's 54th Assembly District have been hit with a deluge of aggressive mailers and online ads in what's shaping up to be one of the most expensive Assembly races of the 2014 election.
One features a photo of a man with his pants around his ankles accompanied by the words, "Gordon Hintz Has A Pants Problem." Another shows state Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, holding a sign edited to read, "An embarrassment to Oshkosh."
All told, there are at least seven ads making heavy use of two notable incidents in Hintz's past — all of which were introduced within the final two weeks of the race.
Hintz, who has represented the district since he was first elected in 2006, is challenged by Republican Mark Elliott, a pastor-turned-entrepreneur who owns a rental properties company and founded Dr. Mark Elliott Ministries.
Most of the ads have come from the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group that spends heavily in favor of promoting school voucher programs. The Jobs First Coalition, a Wisconsin-based conservative business group, has also advertised with mailers, online ads and radio spots, and the Republican Party of Wisconsin has sent mailers on Elliott's behalf.
The American Federation for Children has spent a reported $106,780 against Hintz, according to campaign finance reports. Estimates for the Jobs First Coalition's efforts total about $24,000, and estimates for the state GOP total about $16,000.
No outside interest groups have issued pro-Hintz or anti-Elliott ads.
While the bulk of the spending against Hintz has come from a pro-voucher group, the closest the ads come to mentioning education is a knock on Hintz for voting against a plan to limit property tax increases.
Instead, they portray Hintz as a tax-and-spend politician with a "pants problem" who is "anti-women."
The ads refer to two incidents that took place in February 2011. Hintz was cited in 2011 for sexual misconduct in connection to a prostitution sting that took place in Appleton. Hintz paid a $2,032 fine. Later that month, immediately following 58 hours of heated debate and a vote over Gov. Walker's contentious budget reform bill, Hintz yelled, "You're f---ing dead" at then-Rep. Michelle Litjens, a Republican.
Hintz apologized and Litjens said at the time she didn't believe the comment was meant for her directly, but rather the entire Republican Party for moving forward with the bill.
A web ad that urges voters to vote against the Oshkosh Democrat reads, "Gordon Hintz: Soliciting Prostitutes. Threatening Women."
"I've got to live with it," Hintz said of the 2011 incidents. "I'm in a better place in my personal life now, which makes a lot of things easier. I never stopped doing my job. I never hid from the public. I hold office hours, I go door-to-door. I’ve done my best to live my life with purpose, intent, mindfulness and accountability. And that’s all any of us can do."
Hintz said he assumes he's a target for AFC since he's been an outspoken opponent of a taxpayer-funded voucher program, and of moving money from public schools to their private counterparts.
"It’s been bad for education in our state, and it hurts Oshkosh public schools," Hintz said, adding that AFC is "looking for rubber stamps in the legislature that will forward an agenda that will continue to expand unaccountable taxpayer-funded private schools statewide."
Elliott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, the Republican candidate posted this on his Facebook page on Sunday: "I really have NOTHING to do with all the negative ads and postcards being done by outside groups on behalf of my campaign. I found out about them when I go to my mailbox just like you."
In an interview with Oshkosh Northwestern Media published last week, Elliott said he wasn't familiar with AFC, but said he "would have to thank them" when he learned how much the group had spent.
Mike McCabe, director of the nonpartisan elections watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said it's rare for an interest group to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in an Assembly race.
"The 54th is going to be one of the most expensive Assembly races this time around," McCabe said. "Anytime you see spending going into six figures … that’s rare. You only see that a handful of times in an election cycle."
The Oshkosh Northwestern reported last week that AFC had spent more on the race than both candidates combined.
Interest groups "pick and choose very carefully" which races to target, weighing in on the ones most likely to be toss-ups, McCabe said. Outside groups are even less likely to spend in an election cycle like the current one, since it's all but certain Republicans will maintain a majority in the Assembly, he said.
In races that could go either way, it's not unusual for interest group spending to eclipse spending by candidates, McCabe said.
For AFC to run ads that say nothing of education issues is nothing new, he said, adding that the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has been tracking the group as long as he can remember.
"For as long as I’ve been watching this group, their advertising never seems to focus on school vouchers," McCabe said. "That's been their M.O. all along."
One pants "problem" ad from the Republican Party of Wisconsin encourages voters to "Tell Gordon Hintz to Zip It."
"Prostitution. Sexual Misconduct. Death Threats. Arrested," the ad reads.
But Hintz was issued a citation for an ordinance violation, not arrested.
"(I've) never been arrested, never been charged," Hintz said. "The truth and the details have never been important to the groups out there whose goal is to distract the electorate from their agenda."
"The point of negative ads is to get you off your message and to distract the public from the issues going on," he continued. "And the reason that I’m being attacked has nothing to do with any past issues with me, it’s because I’m someone who stood up to the special interest groups and who has been a huge proponent of our public schools in Wisconsin."
There's no real legal recourse for a politician in that situation, McCabe said, noting how high the bar is for a public figure to successfully sue for libel or defamation.
The difference, McCabe said, is that there's no way for voters to punish groups who publish false claims. If a candidate runs a campaign voters don't like, voters can respond at the ballot box — but not so with political parties or interest groups.
"When candidates get pushed to the sidelines and become spectators in their own races ... those surrogates are at liberty to spread outright lies, and voters can’t vote against them because they don’t show up on the ballot," McCabe said.
Hintz said that's the epitome of what's wrong with modern-day politics. If these campaigns are successful in an Assembly race in a district of about 58,000 people, he expects Wisconsin will only see more of them.
"While it may be a referendum on me in office, it’s also a referendum on democracy in 2014 — because this is nothing to them," Hintz said. "They've got unlimited money, they've got billionaire backers from out of state. It’s sort of a perfect storm. We have the system we have. It’s allowed under the rules we have. I think the question for the public going forward is, should it be?"