In the weeks leading up to the November 3 elections here in Virginia, Republicans thought they had found their “silver bullet” issue to defeat a bunch of Democrats in Northern Virginia: namely, Gov. McAuliffe’s plan for congestion tolling on I-66. Thus, if you turned on your TV (almost always a bad idea, but that’s another story for another blog post – lol) leading up to the election, you were highly likely to see hysterical ads like this one by Republican Hal Parrish against Democrat Jeremy McPike, this one by Republican Danny Vargas against Democrat Jennifer Boysko, and an almost identical one (can’t find the link right now) by Republican Craig Parisot against Democrat Kathleen Murphy.
Other than the ads being complete lies, demagoguery and/or distortions in almost every way (see here for more on that subject), here’s one other thing they had in common: every one of the Democrats being attacked in the ads won their elections. So much for the I-66 tolling issue having any “juice” at the polls on election day, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to rev up voter anger at Democratic candidates for supposedly forcing you to pay $17 to drive on I-66.
Why did this ad campaign fail? I don’t know for sure, but perhaps in part because the ads were so ridiculous, so fallacious, and so blatantly stupid that voters saw through it. It also could be the result of Gov. McAuliffe really coming out swinging in defense of this plan, calling Hal Parrish a liar for his false claims about the congestion pricing plan, Then there were editorials like this one in the Washington Post calling out Republicans for making hysterical, “bogeyman” charges that were “crass, misleading and pitched toward exploiting voters’ fears.”
Finally, what we also saw was Democratic candidates running as fast as they possibly could away from this plan. For instance, Democratic House of Delegates candidate Jennifer Boysko said, “The idea of our working families having to pay an additional what could be 17 dollars a day when they have an unflexible time for travel … I think there’s a lot of heartburn going on in the community.” Democratic Delegate Kathleen Murphy also clearly opposed the tolls.
In fact, I can’t think of a single Democratic candidate in a competitive race in Northern Virginia this past election who came out in favor of Gov. McAuliffe’s tolling plan. That’s in spite of the fact that this plan actually has a great deal of merit. As David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington explains in a Washington Post column:
Would you pay a few dollars to be able to use a direct route you aren’t allowed to use today? Sounds like a good value, depending on the price. Unfortunately, a number of candidates for office in the recent election, all political opponents of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), tried to stoke a sort of “sticker shock” by alleging that this plan would force $17 tolls on Virginia commuters.
That’s misleading. That would be a round-trip price, not one way, that would apply only to people driving alone during the absolute busiest time for the full nine-mile length of toll lanes. Nobody would pay this, because anyone who would is not driving there now can simply continue not doing so.
The plan would, however, offer some commuters a speedier trip if they felt it was worth the cost. Maintaining roads is not free and far from fully covered by gas taxes. The tolls also would help pay to give commuters other choices, such as express buses.
Yet again, Democrats ran from this plan like bats out of hell. And it might have worked, politically speaking, as it’s hard to think of a single Democratic candidate in Northern Virginia who was hurt by the demagogic I-66 tolling ads run by Republicans. That’s all well and good, I suppose; the problem is that these Democratic candidates were essentially just as wrong on the policy merits as Republicans were. The fact is, congestion pricing works, and is a FAR better alternative to widening roads, encouraging MORE sprawl, MORE traffic, MORE fossil fuel dependency and MORE environmental damage, Why on earth would we want to do that? And if we do NOT want to do that, then what are the policy alternatives other than the type of plan Gov. McAuliffe has proposed? If there are any, I’d love to hear them, but so far I haven’t.
Anyway, I guess the bottom line here is that when faced by demagogic, false attacks, it’s not SURPRISING that the recipients of said attacks would run for the hills, and it might even be effective (in the short run) politically. But is it smart policy? Doesn’t seem like it to me.
P.S. By the way, for everyone who claims, like a mantra, that “negative advertising works,” clearly that’s not always the case, as the I-66 tolling ad campaign demonstrates. Jerry Kilgore’s crazy “Hitler ads” didn’t work in 2005 against Tim Kaine, either. Point is, lots of negative ads don’t work, although I’m sure plenty of them do. As usual, it’s far more complicated than any simplistic “always works/never works,” one-size-fits-all rule.