Gulf oil coated state politics last week as Democrats in Maryland's two highest-profile contests tried to tar their likely Republican opponents with the BP spill.
Maryland Republicans responded with indignation: Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. accused Gov. Martin O'Malley of "seeking to take advantage of the tragedy." The Maryland Republican Party, sticking up for congressional hopeful Andy Harris, scolded Rep. Frank Kratovil for trying to "capitalize" on the "worst environmental disaster in US history."
Attempts to link candidates in Maryland to a disaster that is playing out in waters 1,400 miles away might seem a stretch, but the tactic is bubbling up in campaigns across the country and in races at all levels. While the Democrats made the most coordinated offensive last week, Republicans have also used the issue.
"It is always true that when you have evocative visuals you will see someone use them in an attack ad against someone else," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "Advertising feeds on these kinds of images, if you can take an existing emotional response and throw it at a candidate."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is pushing spill-related attacks in more than 20 districts — some in such landlocked states as Iowa and Nebraska. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the committee, says the disaster has become a budget issue that's captured the nation's attention.
"Taxpayers don't want to be left picking up the tab," Van Hollen said. "If BP doesn't pick up the tab, taxpayers will have to pay."
The committee seized on Republican Rep. Joe Barton's apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward during a congressional hearing June 17, calling it an indication of Republican sympathy for the oil industry.
"It was a very revealing moment," said Van Hollen. "That is why this issue resonates."
Charges and counter-charges
In Maryland, Kratovil echoed the theme in his attack on Harris. In a fundraising letter, Kratovil's campaign manager wrote that "Harris's friends in Congress have gone so far as to apologize to BP for our efforts to hold the company accountable."
Kratovil campaign manager Jessica Klonsky names Barton, who represents suburban Fort Worth, Texas, as a "friend" of Harris', a Republican state senator from Baltimore County. When the letter was read to him, Harris laughed out loud.
Klonsky writes that Harris has received more than $32,000 in donations from the oil industry.
The oil industry, and BP in particular, has poured funds into the accounts of candidates on both sides of the aisle. Harris said the bulk, if not all, of the oil donations came last cycle.
"This race is not about the oil spill in Louisiana," he said.
O'Malley used a different line of attack, buying radio time on more than 10 stations in Baltimore and the Eastern Shore. The spot identified Ehrlich as a "Big Oil lobbyist," said he voted repeatedly for the industry while a member of Congress and associated him with a local heating oil spill.
Ehrlich has never been a registered lobbyist. Attorneys from the North Carolina office of Ehrlich's law firm represent three big oil companies, but not BP. His industry votes were not opposed by environmental groups.
"It is nonsense," Ehrlich said last week. "The whole ad is nonsense."
O'Malley stood by the ad and released another on Friday, which again calls Ehrlich a "lobbyist" — not only for the oil industry, but also for tobacco and banking.
Ehrlich questioned whether it was fair to associate him with clients that the firm represented. It would be analogous, he said, to link O'Malley to drunken driving because the governor represented clients with DUI charges when he was a criminal defense attorney in Baltimore. (O'Malley's camp bristles at that comparison — the governor's previous clients have all been disclosed and vetted, while Ehrlich's income sources have not been fully aired, they say.)
Tactic goes national
Other states far from the Gulf are seeing the oil attacks. A Democratic congressional hopeful in Minnesota charged that Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann "leapt to the defense" of BP in remarks that appeared sympathetic to the oil giant in The Washington Post.
Democratic challenger Tarryl Clark released an online ad with footage of oil-drenched pelicans and then asked supporters for money to get it played on TV.
Closer to the Gulf, candidates have taken a different tack: attempting to use the spill to highlight their leadership. Alex Sink, running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Florida, invited the media to accompany her to a BP claims office with a small businessman who said he had lost tens of thousands of dollars.
"It is a tragedy for our state," said Kyra Jennings, a Sink campaign spokeswoman. "So our campaign is sensitive to that fact."