The Perfect Enemy | Fact-checking political advertisements
December 2, 2022

Fact-checking political advertisements

Fact-checking political advertisements  Kenai Peninsula Online

Read Time:9 Minute

Nick Begich III’s video ad says Nancy Pelosi is raising millions for Mary Peltola, while Peltola’s mailer says Begich supports a national ban on abortion with no exceptions. Neither claim is exactly true.

But the claims by the U.S. House candidates are largely par for the course in Alaska’s election races this year (and other years), where the barrage of advertising by candidates and supporters includes some that are pure nonsense, some that say nothing of substance, and a great many that are — to borrow a phrase from “Star Wars” — “true from a certain point of view.”

Begich’s fundraising claim, made in a recent TV/online ad, is nonsense since Pelosi’s name appears only on a $25,000 contribution from the House Speaker’s campaign account to Peltola in FEC campaign finance reports. The newly elected Democrat has raised more than $5 million in recent months after rising from relatively obscurity to win a special election in August, largely via the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue (along with $140,000 recently from the similar-minded House Victory Project).

Begich’s campaign, when questioned about its claim, responded with a guilt-by-association between Peltola and Pelosi that implied rather than provided direct evidence of such ties.

“Not only has Pelosi donated to Peltola, she is directing these donors and money to Peltola’s campaign,” Truman Reed, Begich’s campaign manager, wrote in an email. “The point being that she is on team Pelosi and Pelosi’s leadership team is directing donors across the nation to support Peltola’s campaign.”

Peltola, in turn, despite seeking to establish positive campaigning as a defining characteristic, included the line about both of her Republican challengers — Begich and former Gov. Sarah Palin — opposing abortion without restrictions in a campaign mailer.

Palin’s website indeed states “there is never an acceptable excuse for deliberately taking a human life.” But Begich says he supports exceptions for incest, rape and the life of the mother, although he opposes allowing federal funds to be used in such instances (more than one-third of Alaskans receive health care through Medicaid).

Inquires to Peltola’s campaign about the abortion claim did not receive a response.

As the third major candidate in the race, Palin’s recent ads mostly focus on President Joe Biden and Democrats generally rather than her opponents. While abortion rights are one of Peltola’s main platform issues, Palin essentially ignores it in favor of ads making claims about oil drilling, inflation and oddities such as claiming Biden is spending taxpayer funds on drag shows in Ecuador (which fact checkers have proclaimed is true).

As with many candidates, the truthfulness of Palin’s claims varies.

She invokes a common Republican attack by blaming Biden for a 12% inflation rate in Anchorage during the past year, although the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the rate at 7.6% as of August (the rate did spike to 12.4% in June, but otherwise has been similar to August’s rate since February). More fundamentally, economists generally agree inflation is a global issue due to lingering pandemic issues and the world oil market, although many say U.S. government spending favored by Biden such as the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package known as the American Rescue Plan is a contributing factor.

Also, while Palin’s ads argue “we need to open the spigot and ’drill, baby drill’ IMMEDIATELY” in Alaska’s north slope to reduce inflation, numerous analysts have stated a lack of viable bids and interest from oil companies is largely responsible for inactivity in recent years. In addition, it will take years for oil from newly approved projects to be extracted and reach the market.

Absolutely few absolute truths

While exaggerations and fibs are common for campaigns, clever wordings and interpretations often makes it hard to classify claims as absolute truths or falsehoods.

Take the governor’s race, where Republican incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy is the dominant focus of attention, either from boasts in his favor or attacks from his two main opponents. A mailer sent in his behalf by the group A Stronger Alaska (largely funded by the Republican Governor’s Association) makes three claims about the governor that span the range of truthfulness.

— Claim: “Decreased state spending every year he’s been in office.” The bottom line is combined state-dollars spending in the budget signed by Dunleavy at the end of June was $4.8 billion, up from $4.6 billion in his first budget, and an update in October of this year’s budget shows an increase over last year by every means of calculation.

— Claim: “Repealed disastrous catch and release program leading to an 18% decrease in crime.” While Alaska’s overall crime rate did drop, so did rates nationally and globally due to reduced activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state’s Uniform Crime Report for 2021, for instance, notes a significant drop in property crime was similar to other locations worldwide. The report also notes the difficulty of attributing specific causes to changes in crime rates due to a multitude of factors affecting different areas.

— Claim: “Delivered highest PFD in history.” This claim is true, with a minor caveat: the $3,284 dividend was the second-highest when adjusted for inflation (the $3,269 in 2008 divided is equal to $4,470 in today’s dollars).

Attempts to reach A Stronger Alaska for comment about the mailer were unsuccessful.

Andrew Jensen, a spokesperson for Dunleavy’s campaign, declined to comment specifically on the mailer since it is from a legally separate entity, but did respond to questions about each of the claims as made by Dunleavy himself. While noting the latter statements about the crime rate and PFD amount are literally true as noted, Jensen also asserted the claim of cutting state spending every year is a matter of nuances.

“The operating budget increase in FY23 compared to FY19 is entirely due to the $188M increase that is a one-time expense to retire oil tax credit debts that the governor inherited,” he wrote. “Absent this expense, the operating budget for FY23 is less than FY19, the budget he inherited. A one-time expense to retire a debt obligation is not reflective of the overall downward pressure on the operating budget over his time in office.”

Dunleavy’s two main opponents, independent Bill Walker and Democrat Les Gara, have their own mixes of truths and falsehoods.

Among the more prominent recent examples is a joint video ad by the candidates’ running mates — Heidi Drygas and Jessica Cook — claiming Dunleavy “opposed abortion access in all cases, including in cases of rape and incest.” As with the similar claims about Begich, the ad by the running mates goes beyond the truth since Dunleavy has stated he opposes “state-funded elective abortions.”

Third-party truthiness

Another frequent element of misdirection that’s prominent in some of this year’s campaigns is that voices for candidates aren’t the candidates’ voices, legally speaking.

The Alaska U.S. Senate race is the most notable of these, particularly from a financial perspective. While incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has her own multimillion dollar campaign account, she’s been able to use it primarily for positive ads since there are PACs spending their own millions to tear down her main opponent.

A series of mailers and other ads from the Senate Leadership Fund getting national attention in recent weeks, for instance, accurately claims Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka cost state taxpayers more than $81,000 in moving expenses when she was hired by Dunleavy in 2019. Not noted in the mailers, but a topic of media scrutiny, is she subsequently resigned that job a month after the two-year period during which she would have had to reimburse the state.

Tshibaka, in interviews, has blamed the cost on state regulations requiring her to select the lowest bidder, and on the moving company breaching its contract and inflating costs.

Such ads are part of what for the public has been a largely negative race between the two Republicans, in contrast to Murkowski’s frequent statements she’s running a positive campaign. In an interview this week she stood by that claim and said “I think there are some who are not paying attention to who’s paying for it, it is not coming from my campaign.”

“The reality is that I was the candidate and my campaign can’t say ‘dial it down’ or ‘we don’t like the tone of that,’” she said. “That is considered to be coordination and in violation of all the FEC laws. It is what it is.”

The Senate Leadership Fund is a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was censured by the Alaska Republican Party (which has also previously censured Murkowski) for the ads attacking Tshibaka.

Tshibaka, however, has her own “independent expenditure” beneficiaries.

A mailer by the PAC Alaska First makes the claim Murkowski “votes with Joe Biden 80% of the time,” a falsehood that essentially is an exaggeration of the larger point being made. The incumbent has voted in line with Biden’s agenda about 67% of the time, the second-highest total among Republicans with Maine’s Susan Collins first at about 70%, according to a FiveThirtyEight database. There are notable gaps on either side of the two woman, with Ohio’s Rob Portman being the next-ranked Republican at 62% and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin the closest senator on the higher end at 89%.

Meanwhile, the TV/video ads by Murkowski and Tshibaka during the campaign’s final weeks generally aren’t making a lot of specific factual claims in their favor or against their opponent. Murkowski talks about being for “protecting access” to Alaska’s wilderness, for instance, while Tshibaka largely aims at federal-level targets by declaring she won’t vote for “radical” liberal cabinet/judicial nominees and will “will fight for legislation that combats human trafficking.”

Such claims with no factual meaning are common for campaigns, such as a Walker ad proclaiming his ticket is “ready to solve this issue and make housing more affordable for all Alaskans” or a large Peltola flyer stating nothing beyond she’s “for salmon.”

Not intended as literal truths?

Some of the wildest claims, instead of involving a candidate, focus on a ballot proposition asking residents if they favor a state constitutional convention.

And those in favor in particular don’t necessarily need to rely on advertising dollars to make their claims — a boon to them since their fundraising is minuscule compared to their opponents — since the state is willing to include the assertions in the official election pamphlet. As such, the statement by proponents is filled with wild claims such as “a power grab by the judiciary has actually overthrown our state constitution.”

Among those in opposition is state Sen. Jesse Kiehl of Juneau, who while unopposed in his reelection race very much has a dog in the convention fight. One of his few campaign expenditures is a mailer that, in listing the purported perils of such a gathering, offers: “A convention would mean a capital move Southeast Alaskans couldn’t undo.”

In reality, while moving the capital from Juneau is mentioned by some convention supporters as a possible agenda item, it is of course by no means a certainty at this point — and neither is a convention vote nor a subsequent vote by a majority of Alaskans in favor of a capital move.

Kiehl, in an interview, acknowledged the claim isn’t literally factual, but “I think it is a staggeringly likely outcome.” He also suggests voters are smart enough to grasp the implied possibilities and larger truths of such statements.

“I don’t expect anyone to take my predictions as statement of fact,” he said.

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com <!–

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