Yachts and lobsters: candidates targeted for wealth

Flashy boats, fat lobster tails on the grill and sandy beaches are recurring themes in ads Democrats are running this month against Minnesota Republicans.

If those lifestyle of the rich and famous images seem unattainable and unfamiliar to you, then Democrats are getting their message across.

Both Sen. Al Franken and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are among the Democrats who are painting Republicans like Senate hopeful Mike McFadden and 8th Congressional District candidate Stewart Mills as too wealthy and too corporate for the average person.

With the income gap between the wealthiest Americans and the middle class growing every year, these are popular campaign themes around the country, said Michael Franz, a government professor at Bowdoin College and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads.

"Democrats and their allied groups are trying to tap into a populism among the American people in the financial situation we're in to highlight the connections between Republican candidates and wealthy interests," he said.

Take a new spot paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that targets Mills, who is running against DFL Rep. Rick Nolan. In it, a Mills look-alike is sailing off on his yacht at sunset.

"Stewart Mills III caught a big inheritance and a family job that pays half-a-million a year. But in Congress, Mills will leave you on the hook for higher taxes because Mills opposed tax cuts for the middle class."

The DCCC ad is artfully done, says UCLA politics and communications professor Lynn Vavreck. Even the spot's smallest details, including its typeface, conjure wealth, she said.

So does the ad's repeated reference to "Stewart Mills III."

"These are all signals to people to say, 'Hey, who do you know who refers to themselves as a "third,"' said Vavreck. "Most people probably don't have a friend or a colleague who is a third. So that's another way to make him seem very different from you."

Then there's Mills's hair. Two DCCC ads feature images of Mills smoothing back his chin-length locks, which Franz said signals to viewers that Mills is only interested in wealth and status.

Meanwhile, Franken is using similar tactics to target McFadden. Two ads charge that McFadden used off-shore tax havens to avoid paying taxes in the United States. It's an attack that may sound familiar, because Democrats targeted former presidential candidate Mitt Romney for similar reasons in the 2012 election.

"These are these places in the world that most Americans know because they are places where people have secret bank accounts or hide their money," said Vavreck. She said the ads prompt viewers to ask, "Who does that? Rich people do that. Why do they do that? Because they're skirting the rules."

The big question is whether these themes work. Franz said ads that go too far, particularly with a personal attack, can backfire.

But for now, "It's not bad to be running against the wealthy in a world where wealthy have more wealth," Franz said.

UPDATE: Mills spokeswoman Chloe Rockow wrote this in response to the DCCC ad:

"Rick Nolan and his friends in DC special interest groups continue to target Stewart for being a successful job creator in our part of Minnesota. By attacking his family's record of employing thousands of our friends and neighbors, Washington Democrats have proven that they'll stoop to any level to avoid talking about Rick Nolan's embarrassing record. It's become abundantly clear that they can't win on the issues, so they're resorting to personal attacks, lies, and fabrications, and Minnesotans deserve better."

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