Terry Nelson: Hack Hall of Shame Inductee #1

Terry Nelson

Whaddya Need? Push polls? Race-Baiting? Dirty Tricks? Terry Nelson’s Crosslink Strategy Group: A Full Service Hacks & Flacks firm.

The U.S. senate candidate told his media consultant “no matter what happens I’m not going negative.” The poll numbers began to slide and the candidate found himself down by several points with only two weeks left. The consultant shoved a direct mail letter across his desk. “Sign this, he said, “and we can get it out to hit next week.” The consultant stood over his shoulder as the candidate read the letter, a vicious and wholly manufactured attack on the opponent’s record compiled from procedural votes that distorted the opponent’s actual stance on the issue.

Focused on the criminal justice system, the letter conveyed the impression that the opponent was “soft on crime.” The racial innuendos were clear. If distributed several days before the election, there would be no time to counter it. The candidate signed the letter, shook his head ruefully, looked up at the consultant and said “I don’t know how you sleep at night.” The consultant replied, “I sleep fine; I don’t have to sign the letter.”

I heard that story told in Washington D.C. a number of years ago. I don’t recall whether it was apocryphal or an account of an actual conversation. No matter. There are endless variations but the basic idea is a familiar one: except for a very few high profile operatives – and even they aren’t well known – the candidate signs the letter or signs off on the ad or the tactic. For the real nasty stuff, there are distancing techniques. Think Enron or Citigroup and the off-the-books entities where the toxic assets are stashed. As for the balance sheet that investors see – in this case voters – everything looks pristine.

In 2006, the battle to replace Republican senate majority leader Bill Frist pitted Harold Ford Jr., a Democratic congressman against former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, a wealthy businessman.

Harold Ford Jr. is black. When Corker’s poll numbers were going south, Republican operatives pulled out the race card, the strategy that had served them so well since the Nixon era. Terry Nelson, political director of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, headed a Republican National Committee’s independent expenditure unit that financed and approved this campaign ad:

Implying an illicit sexual relationship between a black congressman and a white woman in a Tennessee senate race – race baiting? Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman was shocked that anyone would interpret the ad as such. Besides, Mehlman pointed out in an MSNBC interview with Tim Russert, this was an independent expenditure. He had no legal authority to pull the ad. “The way that process works under the campaign reform laws,” he told Russert, “is I write a check to an independent individual. And that person’s responsible for spending money in certain states. Tennessee is one of them.” By setting up committees that are required to operate independently – and without direction – from party leadership, political parties circumvent spending limits in campaigns that they coordinate.

In a report by The New York Times, Vanderbilt University professor and political advertising expert John Geer said that the spot “makes the Willie Horton ad look like child’s play.”

The pressure mounted and Mehlman backtracked in an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN:

BLITZER: Listen to what former United States Republican senator, William Cohen, who served as defense secretary during the Clinton administration, he was here on Monday. Listen to what he said.

COHEN: I think the Republicans have to be careful also in terms of not engaging in conduct — and I was watching the Tennessee race specifically. It reminded me of what happened in North Carolina with Harvey Gantt, a purely overt racist approach.

MEHLMAN: Wolf, I agree with Senator Cohen. As you remember, I made some news last year when I spoke at the NAACP and as chairman of the Republican Party said it was wrong Republicans did that in the past. I was condemned by some within my own party. I stand behind that statement. I would never countenance an ad that does that.”

[Im]plausible deniability for Corker and Mehlman: Neither of them had anything to do with it. Why, those nasty consultants wouldn’t even listen to Corker who said the ad was “distasteful.” Who actually produced the ad? Enter Scott Howell, notorious Republican hit man and Nelson’s close associate. The same Scott Howell who in 2002, helped create an ad for Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, which attacked Max Cleland, the Democratic incumbent and triple-amputee Vietnam veteran by claiming he was weak on national security. The ad featured an image of Osama Bin Laden. Like Nelson, Howell is a Karl Rove acolyte who boosted his career with Rove’s direct-mail business in Texas.

“Distasteful?” Well, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.

The Harold Ford ad was eventually pulled, but not before it did its job. Polls taken immediately before the ad ran and shortly after it was pulled showed that Bob Corker had moved from a dead heat to a 8-10 point lead.

Corker had the best of all worlds: The ad stirred the racial pot and energized Corker’s base with an assortment of non-racial claims that included financial backing by pornographers to the ususal tax, spend, and weak on national security issues. By calling it “distasteful” Corker gave moderate and independent voters the impression that he was a decent fellow. “Distasteful?” Well, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.

Bob Corker, now Sen. Bob Corker, won the election, but Terry Nelson, who counted Wal-Mart among his clients, lost the giant retailer as a client. When union groups and prominent black leaders like Jesse Jackson spotlighted its association with Nelson, Wal-Mart decided it couldn’t afford further damage to its already negative image. Oddly enough, Corker as mayor had done a private business deal with Wal-Mart that triggered a lawsuit and much political and financial controversy. Corker persuaded the court to seal the records.

There’s more to Terry Nelson than simple race-baiting in the cause of electing Republican candidates. When Texas prosecutors indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on campaign finance-related charges, they alleged that Terry Nelson was the conduit for $190,000 laundered through the Republican National Committee from DeLay’s political action committee to Texas House of Representatives candidates.

In the 2002 New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal, which tied up Democratic phone lines and blocked their get-out-the-vote effort, the campaign operative, who was sentenced to prison, reported to whom else? Terry Nelson.

None of it was a problem for John McCain, not even the 2000 South Carolina primary in which a push polling operation spread rumors that McCain had fathered a black child. At the time McCain said there was a “special place in hell” reserved for these people. Nelson—Bush’s political director—had found it: McCain hired him as his campaign manager for the 2008 Presidential election.

Nelson’s associates are a rogue’s gallery of political operatives. One stand-out is Chris LaCivita, of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth notoriety, and a former political operative for Sen. Bill Frist. McCain called his smear campaign against John Kerry “dishonest and dishonorable.” Tough talk in front of the cameras from the conductor of the Straight Talk Express.

As deplorable as are Nelson’s and Howell’s tactics, let’s not forget John McCain and Bob Corker, the people ultimately responsible for the toxic sludge.

Bob Corker and John McCain

John McCain and Bob Corker

You’d be surprised at how much they’re counting on your short memory.

In 2006, Crosslink become an operating unit of Mercury Public Affairs, a “full-service communications firm headquartered in New York, and a member of the Fleishman-Hillard group, which is part of Omnicom Group.” In July 2007, Sen. John McCain fired Nelson as his campaign manager, reportedly because he was unhappy with the “lackluster fundraising and mixed messages coming from an unfocused leadership committee.” We’ll keep you posted.

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