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Democrats Unveil Ad Attacking House GOP Leaders

House Majority PAC has unveiled a campaign ad taking aim at top House Republican leaders.
Screenshot by NPR
House Majority PAC has unveiled a campaign ad taking aim at top House Republican leaders.

A prominent outside group supporting House Democrats is out with a new ad attacking top House Republican leaders as a scandal-plagued trio following in the mold of disreputable party predecessors.

The new ad, called "Answer," opens with old news footage of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich while a menacing male voice says, "They've shut down the government," before reminding viewers of unsavory moments for each of the three Republicans vying for the top House leadership spots.

First comes Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who has been accused of turning a blind eye to allegations that an Ohio State team doctor sexually abused athletes decades ago when Jordan was an assistant wrestling coach. The narrator goes a step further, asking, "remind you of Joe Paterno?" — a reference to the late Penn State football coach, who was accused of failing to report extensive sexual abuse allegations at that school. Jordan has denied he knew about any instances of abuse.

Next, the ad turns to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who dropped out of the 2015 race to replace retiring House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, amid rumors of an extramartial affair. McCarthy dismissed questions about the reports.

And last, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., whom the narrator describes as "linked to KKK leader David Duke" as his picture appears behind the newspaper headline "Steve Scalise Once Defended Himself Against Links to David Duke." Scalise has said he didn't know at the time that the group he addressed in 2002 had ties to white supremacists.

The ad, which is set to run nationally online, is the most direct attack so far this year on top GOP figures who are viewed as successors to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is retiring at the end of this year. House Majority PAC declined to give exact details on the campaign but told NPR it was spending "five figures" on the digital ad buy.

It borrows from a familiar playbook for Democrats — they used a similar message to discredit Republicans and retake the House in 2006.

House Majority PAC spokesman Jeb Fain embraced the throwback in a statement promoting the ad.

"Past is prologue when it comes to House Republican leadership — a series of toxic politicians pushing toxic policies," Fain said. "It's just more of the same with the Republicans jockeying to replace Paul Ryan. Our country can't afford the House GOP's continuing circus of chaos and corruption, and we're going to make sure voters from coast to coast know it."

The ad goes to great lengths to remind viewers of some of the seedier moments in House GOP history. It includes a shot of former Rep. Bob Livingston, who was in line to replace Gingrich but stepped down to avoid revealing details of his extramarital affairs.

Then a shot of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., being whisked away in a wheelchair behind the headline "Hastert Paid Sex-Abuse Accuser $1.7 Million to Stay Quiet." It also goes on to attack Ryan, who the group argued "tried to end Medicare and Social Security."

Jesse Hunt, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, dismissed the ad, saying Democrats are scrambling amid a leadership fight of their own.

"House Democrats are in revolt against Nancy Pelosi," Hunt said in a statement. "Now her super PAC has decided to launch a slanderous, race-baiting attack to soothe their beleaguered boss's shattered ego."

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.