Republican Governors Association to spend millions on attack ads against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Hobbs
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- The Republican Governors Association is going to put at least $11 million into commercials to ensure that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's successor is of the same political party.
But don't look for that money to be spent extolling the virtues of Kari Lake, the GOP nominee. Instead, given the organization's record, the commercials are more likely to be unapologetic, no-holds-barred attacks on Democrat Katie Hobbs.
Perhaps no one knows that better than Ducey, and not just because he's the RGA president.
He was the beneficiary of RGA money and its attack ads on his Democratic foes in his two gubernatorial runs. More to the point, he publicly acknowledged that having the RGA say all those nasty things about his opponents freed him up to instead campaign with more positive messages -- and deny any knowledge or responsibility for what was being said on his behalf.
Arizona got its first taste this week, even before the Republican nominee was known, as the RGA put up two ads in the Phoenix market targeting Katie Hobbs.
One, using the mother of five and video of people climbing a fence, links sex trafficking with President Biden's border policies, says Hobbs will side with Biden, call her "reckless and irresponsible,'' and says "it's women and children who will pay the price.''
The other features Frank Milstead, the retired chief of the Department of Public Safety, speaking about creation of the Border Strike Force, how "we've rescued children from sex trafficking,'' and how Hobbs supports amnesty and sanctuary cities.
These are straight out of the playbook used to elect and then reelect Ducey.
In his first race in 2014, Ducey's own spending was dwarfed by more than $7 million in commercial financed by outsiders, notably the RGA. And the message of those ads was decidedly negative, decrying "lobbyist Fred Duval'' and blaming him for higher university tuition in his role as a member of the Board of Regents.
Ducey, for his part, insisted he has nothing to do with that. But he also did not disavow any of what was being said on his behalf.
Yet just three years later, as governor, he actually defended the tuition being charged at the state's three universities against a lawsuit by Attorney General Mark Brnovich that the rates were unconstitutionally too high.
In fact, he later tapped DuVal for a new term on the Board of Regents.
The situation repeated itself in 2018 when Ducey was seeking a second term against Democratic challenger David Garcia. And there was nothing subtle about the RGA-sponsored commercials.
One began by telling viewers about 7,000 pounds of heroin seized, 4,800 criminal arrests for gang-related activity, and "young girls rescued from sex trafficking,'' all by Immigration and Customers Enforcement.
"But now David Garcia and other radicals are demanding we abolish ICE,'' it said, saying such a move "would mean more drugs across our border and more gang members in our neighborhood. And if that wasn't enough to get the message across, the commercial featured a sinister-looking black-and-white video of someone in a hoodie carrying what appeared to be a gun.
The commercial was based on a comment made about "replacing'' ICE with some other agency, not to simply eliminate it and what it does entirely. But it gave the RGA the ammunition to go after him.
Asked about the RGA-funded anti-Garcia ad after his pitch to association donors, Ducey pointed out he is legally precluded from coordinating with any outside group that is making "independent expenditures'' on his behalf.
The governor, however, also said he had no particular problem with what RGA told Arizona voters on his behalf.
"My opponent did reckless things,'' he said. "And the people spoke.''
But Ducey actually praised the RGA -- and the business executive and lobbyists who fund it -- for financing the attacks.
Speaking after the election at an RGA meeting, Ducey told the donors that a lot of the credit his being able to save his own donations to tell his positive story was due to the money they had provided to the association.
"It was the RGA that was the firewall for me that allowed me to make the case on what we had accomplished, and what we were going to accomplish in the future and create that separation to keep Arizona red,'' he told them.
That "firewall'' was the $8 million spent by RGA in Arizona -- more than Ducey spent on his own behalf -- which went not into positive ads promoting the incumbent governor's agenda but instead into attacking Garcia.
Jon Thompson, the RGA spokesman at the time, defended the tone of the ads.
"I wouldn't say they were designed to scare,'' he told Capitol Media Services.
And what of the images, like the criminal in a hoodie and a hypodermic needle dropping into a pile of white powder?
"I don't think it was over the top,'' he said. "I think it was meant to make sure voters understood what was at stake in the election.''
"A lot of times, we do negative advertising,'' said Will Reinert, the RGA's current regional press secretary. "But that's not all we do.''
Still, he said, it's what the RGA is supposed to do.
"Our mission is to elect Republican governors,'' Reinert said. "And a lot of times we are charged with informing voters about the dangers of our Democrat opponents.''
That's not to say the Democratic Governors Association is likely to play any nicer in 2022 in Arizona.
Hours after Lake clinched the GOP nomination, DGA Executive Director Noam Lee called her "a diehard MAGA extremist who has centered her campaign on far-right conspiracy theories and dangerous policies.'' He also pointed out that Ducey, who had endorsed Karrin Taylor Robson, took out after Lake during the primary, accusing her of "misleading voters with no evidence.''
"She's been tagged by her opponents with a nickname, Fake Lake, which seems to be sticking and actually doing some damage,'' the governor said on CNN last month.
So far, though, there have been no ad buys in Arizona.
Yet in May the organization announced more than $70 million in initial television buy reservations in seven states, including $23 million in Michigan, $21 million in Wisconsin, $10 million in Nevada and $2.5 million in New Mexico.
But DGA spokeswoman Christina Amestoy said it "views Arizona as one of our top pick-up opportunities in the country.''
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