Veterans group's attack ads targeted GOP incumbents

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The political advertisement depicting a mannequin in U.S. military wear being shredded by small-arms fire began showing up in August against U.S. Sen. George Allen of Virginia.

The powerful, bullet-blazing ad, claiming the senator failed to support sufficient funding for body armor to protect troops in Iraq, made its way into races against three other incumbent Republican senators who were defeated Nov. 7: Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Jim Talent of Missouri and Conrad Burns of Montana.

Another evocative commercial, softer in tone while showing a paralyzed Iraqi war veteran in a wheelchair, was used in the final days of the campaign against U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart of Bradford Woods, as well as two other GOP House members who lost, Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota and John Sweeney of New York. The claim this time: The incumbents voted against veterans' benefits.

The note at the end of the ads made clear they were paid for not by Democratic candidates but by VoteVets Political Action Committee. It is a group that came out of nowhere this year, with Pittsburgh-connected veterans of the Iraqi and Afghan wars playing a large role in its leadership.

VoteVets supported a small group of war veterans running for office around the country, including Democratic congressional winners Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak in Eastern Pennsylvania. It attracted more attention, however, with the emotional nature of its opposition to conservative Republicans like Mr. Santorum and Ms. Hart, whose appeal to constituents' patriotism has long been among their political strengths.

"These are the young turks of the veterans world, a counterweight to the hard-core radical right," said former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam War veteran and Democratic Party activist. "They learned real fast and went to war on the ground, and became extremely effective. ... They are a powerful force in this guerilla war for the moral high ground of who really represents America's vets."

Such comments are tempered by challenges to the accuracy of the group's ads; questioning of any group's rightful claim to represent mainstream vets; and a perception that VoteVets' claims of bipartisanship poorly disguise strong Democratic Party leanings.

It's also hard to sort out the various factors that contributed to defeat of individual candidates and determine what role the political action committee's ads had.

It also failed in some of its efforts, spending a quarter of a million dollars unsuccessfully trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., among others. But it's clear that VoteVets made a quick name for itself, raising $2.5 million in a matter of months and finishing on the winning side an unusually large number of times in targeting incumbents.

"It's a principle of war -- the only time you're on defense is when you're preparing to be on offense," said Jon Soltz, the VoteVets chairman. He wants the group to be a forceful counter to other political groups claiming to represent veterans that assail the patriotism of war vets who question U.S. policy, like Mr. Cleland and U.S. Sen. John Kerry.

Much of the credit, or blame, depending on one's perspective, for VoteVets' success lies with Mr. Soltz, 29, a relative newcomer to politics. He is an Army Reserve captain who drills in Oakdale, served on active duty in Kosovo and Iraq, graduated from Washington & Jefferson College and is working toward a master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

A part-time Brookline resident, he divides his time between the organization's New York headquarters and work in Washington. His political involvement began as a volunteer in Mr. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign.

Mr. Soltz said he was a mentally fragile, uncertain young man after his time in Iraq when Mr. Kerry took an interest in what he had to say about the war during a brief encounter at Pittsburgh International Airport in the summer of 2004.

Mr. Soltz, an Army captain organizing truck convoys in Iraq in 2003, had entered the war as a believer in the Bush administration's cause, but emerged disenchanted with the mission and the treatment of soldiers. He worked for Mr. Kerry's election and was dismayed by the well-publicized attacks on the senator's decorated Vietnam War service by the Republican-backed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group.

A year ago, he began talking with Jeremy Broussard, another Iraq veteran who had volunteered for Mr. Kerry, about the need for a new political action committee working on behalf of veterans and veterans issues. After initially collaborating with an existing group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, they formed VoteVets as a separate organization, with Mr. Soltz as chairman and Mr. Broussard as president. Their advisory board lists some notable Democratic figures, including former NATO commander and presidential candidate Wesley Clark and former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey.

VoteVets raised money to back veterans who shared their views about the Bush administration's handling of the war, including congressional candidates Messrs. Sestak and Murphy, and to target vulnerable incumbents who had been pro-war while joining the Republican majority on certain votes that limited funding on veterans-related issues.

The group's piercing body armor ad, against Mr. Allen, earned it its first attention. National media based in Washington, D.C., commented on it. Mr. Soltz said VoteVets spent most of what it had at the time, $15,000, to produce the ad, raised $5,000 each from six people who liked it to put it on the air, and money flowed in afterward from other contributors who supported the aggressive approach VoteVets was taking.

But a political advertising research group based at the University of Pennsylvania, FactCheck.org found the ad misleading. It said the 2003 Senate budget amendment on which the criticism was based made no specific reference to body armor. It accused VoteVets of being unfair to suggest Mr. Allen or any other senator voting against it was uncaring of the safety of U.S. troops.

"It was one of the most blatantly false ads of the fall season," said Brooks Jackson, director of the FactCheck project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, who noted his group also chastised President Bush's campaign in 2004 for trying to use the body armor issue against Mr. Kerry.

Mr. Soltz makes no apologies for the ad, which was subsequently used against Messrs. Santorum, Talent and Burns and John Kyl of Arizona. Republicans in Congress who have supported the war share responsibility with Mr. Bush for poorly protecting troops in Iraq, he contended.

The follow-up ad used against Ms. Hart and four more congressmen featured Tomas Young of Kansas City, Mo., who, the group said, was shot in the legs while riding in an unarmored Humvee in Iraq. His narrative accused each of the targeted GOP incumbents of wrong votes on veterans' benefits issues.

VoteVets has accused Congress, and, more specifically, its Republican leadership and members, of underfunding the Veterans Administration system and denying key health care coverage and bonus payments to soldiers in Iraq.

The group spent some $60,000 on ads in the last week of the campaign against Ms. Hart, who lost to Democrat Jason Altmire, and even more against the others. It paid for 30,000 mailings to Republican and independent households in the 4th Congressional District questioning Ms. Hart's voting record on veterans issues, while she has insisted all along she is a strong supporter of theirs.

During the campaign, Ms. Hart complained more vociferously about a different, "caught redhanded," ad against her relating to the Iraq War, which was paid for by a liberal group, MoveOn.org, with which Mr. Soltz occasionally consulted.

Steve Robertson, the American Legion's national legislative director, said so many votes come up on issues of relevance to veterans, and so many of them are part of multi-issue legislation or within procedural votes, that it can be wrong to pick out individual votes as indicators of an incumbent's true leanings. The American Legion thus issues no scorecards rating members of Congress. In general, he said, the most recent Congress has been like many before it on veterans issues, supporting some, falling short on others, compromising elsewhere.

"Democrats were in control for 40 years and veterans were challenging them on some of these very same issues," Mr. Robertson said.

Mr. Soltz and an advisory board member from Pittsburgh, Iraq veteran Joseph Kramer, 31, an aide to state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, agreed that a true test for the group now was its ability to follow through on the votes of a Democratic-controlled Congress it helped elect.

"Where we go from here is going to be the key," said Mr. Kramer, who appeared in some of the group's advertising and is encouraging Mr. Soltz's plans to hire a Washington, D.C., lobbyist as VoteVets' next step.

The group does have one Republican on its advisory board, and supported a GOP Iraq veteran in an unsuccessful primary election campaign. But the Democratic background of most of those involved is clear.

Mr. Sestak, who received fund-raising support and publicity on his behalf from VoteVets, said the group demonstrated its effectiveness in campaigns. It's up to newcomers like him and other Democrats, he agreed, to show the group wasn't on the wrong mission.

John Heller, Post-Gazette
Veterans activists Jon Soltz, left, and Joe Kramer talk about the candidates they support.
Click photo for larger image.

Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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