Ad Watch: Missouri Senate Race

Oct 18, 2012

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill will lock horns with Rep. Todd Akin in the second and final debate tonight.

The Senate race in Missouri has produced some of this year’s most memorable - and controversial - commercials.

“Brutal.” “Stark.” “Totally devastating.”

Those are some of the ways national press outlets described the three ads released by Senator Claire McCaskill’s campaign last week. Each of the Democrat’s ads, part of her tight race with Republican Congressman Todd Akin, features a woman speaking directly to the camera, saying things like this:

Diana: I’m a Republican and a pro-life mother and a rape survivor.

These are tough ads to fact-check. The three women in the ads, identified only by first name, all say they are survivors of rape or violent sexual assaults. That seems to be true; The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last week that it "has verified the basics of their stories."  Of course, there's no way to confirm the women's earlier party affiliation or "pro-life" views, but a source in the McCaskill campaign told KCUR that the three women speaking on camera are the actual victims, that their first names in the ads are accurate and that all three of their cases resulted in criminal prosecutions in Missouri courts.

Each ad centers on a central claim, as stated here by Diana:

Diana: In the hospital, I was offered emergency contraception. Because of my personal beliefs, I declined. Here’s what else I believe: No woman should be denied that choice. What Todd Akin said is offensive, but what he believes is worse. He would criminalize emergency contraception.

“Emergency contraception” here seems to refer to the so-called morning-after pill, which is typically offered to rape survivors (but is available to anyone). It affects a woman’s hormones to prevent ovulation, keeping pregnancy from occurring. So is it true that Todd Akin would criminalize it? Akin has said consistently that he believes the pill is a form of abortion, which he opposes in all cases, even in cases of rape and incest. He said the morning-after pill should be banned, although “criminalized,” perhaps suggesting prosecution or punishment, is a word we can find no record of Akin himself using.

For her part, McCaskill is completely absent from these commercials (except to approve their message), but she’s all over some other ads—the ones released around the same time by Akin—her face labeled with the word “CORRUPT."

Announcer: It’s a corrupt Washington game, and Claire McCaskill plays it: Getting rich off government. McCaskill cut funding for education and veterans but partnerships owned by McCaskill’s family received over a million dollars in stimulus spending.

Those claims by Akin are unusual for this genre—there’s no fine print on the screen noting specific votes or articles to substantiate claims. So what funding cuts for education and veterans could Akin mean? His campaign website points to a 2009 interview in which McCaskill tells KMBC that she supported reduction in stimulus spending on some education and veterans programs that belonged more appropriately in regular budget appropriations. The senator generally has not emphasized cutting those two programs; in contrast, Akin’s campaign website says he would support scrapping the entire Department of Education.

And the claims about receiving a million dollars? Misleading, at best. McCaskill’s husband, Joseph Shepard owns a very small share in five companies that received stimulus spending. His portion of the $966,000 the companies received would be in the neighborhood of $26,000 – and these recipients were determined by the U.S. Department of Housing —not the Senate.

But the toughest accusations in the Akin ad come next.

Announcer: Now a new scandal: McCaskill’s family pocketed $40 million in federal subsidies. $40 million of our money.

There is fine print on the screen for this claim: It cites an Associated Press article from last week. But a close look at that article shows that it isn’t so simple. Shepard’s investments are the issue again; he’s part-owner of more than 300 so-called “affordable housing” developments, and as many as a third of those business operations, the AP reported, received federal funds totaling about $39 million in the years since McCaskill took office.

But there’s no suggestion in the AP article that Shepard or McCaskill personally received those funds, nor that the senator did anything to guide the funds to her husband’s businesses.

And while Shepard did report making money during this period from those properties--between $500,000  and $2.5 million, the AP said--there’s no way to know whether it was the subsidized parts of the business or the regular unsubsidized rentals that produced the profits.

If that’s too complicated, the end of the ad wants to make it simple.

Announcer: The moment her hand came off the Bible, it went into our pockets.

And if Akin’s explanations of his own comments about rape and contraception have left any ambiguity in voter’s minds, McCaskill’s ads want to simplify that, too.

Joanie: As a woman of faith, I must forgive Todd Akin. But as a voter, it’s not something I can forget.

Missouri voters will show what they’re willing to forgive or forget on November 6th.