If you've been watching the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Connie Mack with befuddlement over the attack ads – Nelson portrayed as a straw-gnawing farmer sucking taxpayers dry via agricultural tax loopholes, Mack as a road-raging bar brawler who hardly shows up to do his job as a U.S. Representative for Florida – you're not alone. Tampa Bay Online reported recently that the race, between an uncontroversial incumbent and a feisty but insubstantial challenger, has mostly been a snoozer – but the mudslinging has been fierce.
Nelson, who's held his office since 2000, is a moderate Democrat who grew up in Florida. He's got a fairly predictable record that generally walks in line with his party: He's not in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act, he hasn't voted in favor of lifting restrictions on offshore drilling and has voted in favor of pro-choice legislation. (According to Project Vote Smart, he gets high ratings from both Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women for voting on issues they deem important to women's reproductive rights.)
Closer to home, he's fought for restoration of the Everglades, to allow senior citizens to keep prescription drugs obtained from Canada and to help revitalize the nation's space-exploration program as the Space Shuttle program wound down in Titusville.
When asked to define the most important things for voters to know about Sen. Nelson this election season, spokesman Paul Kincaid's response was predictably in line with the Democratic message this season: "He's going to keep fighting to create jobs and expand the middle class," Kincaid wrote in an email. "Fighting to get our country's financial house back in order; fighting to protect and preserve Social Security and Medicare; and fighting to strengthen our national security."
And as much as Nelson is a fairly textbook Democrat, so is Mack a conservative Republican: He's decidedly pro-life (when asked his stance on abortion by Project Vote Smart in 2004, he told the organization that "abortions should always be illegal"), he's opposed to limiting defense spending to balance the budget, he wants to see the Affordable Care Act repealed, and he doesn't support federal regulation on greenhouse-gas emissions or tax increases on anyone – wealthy or otherwise.
It's a pretty simple choice for voters – if you lean Dem, vote Nelson; if Romney's your guy, then Mack probably is too. So why all the rancor?
Probably because the most important thing about this race is that this is one of 21 Democratic Senate seats up for grabs this election. Currently, the Democrats hold the majority in the Senate, 53 to 47, but the Republican Party is on the warpath, eager to hand over to Romney not just the White House, but also a Congressional majority. So, although Nelson leads Mack in terms of Senate experience (he's served in the Senate since 2000, while Mack has been a U.S. Representative since 2004), money (he's raised $13.9 million, according to opensecrets.org, compared to Mack's $3.3 million) and in polling (a recent Tampa Bay Times poll says that Nelson currently leads Mack by five points), nothing can be taken for granted.
Which is where those attack ads come in. The American Crossroads Political Action Committee, a conservative PAC founded by a former adviser to President George W. Bush, has spent more than $2 million in the Orlando TV market alone, according to ProPublica's Free the Files project. Some of those dollars have gone toward painting Nelson as a fake farmer who's using Florida's Greenbelt law to obtain a tax exemption on land he owns in Brevard County. The law, which has been in place since 1959, significantly reduces the amount of tax burden on owners of agricultural properties. Savvy corporations and individuals have thrown a few cows onto commercial properties slated for development and reaped the rewards; these anti-Nelson ads try to make it seem as if he's doing just that.
When asked to comment on the Greenbelt law claims, Kincaid says they have "been debunked." The Nelson family has owned the 55 acres in Brevard County since the 1920s, and a lot of the property remains agricultural land. PolitiFact recently denounced the American Crossroads ads that Nelson has unfairly exploited the Greenbelt law as "mostly false."
The Nelson campaign has done its fair share of advertising in this campaign as well, and has spent nearly $1.5 million in TV ads to lash back at Mack, calling him "a promoter for Hooters with a history of barroom brawling, altercations and road rage." But where the claims about Nelson were deemed "mostly false," PolitiFact deemed that one about Mack "mostly true." Mack does have an ancient history of some altercations in nightclubs and bars. And American Bridge 21st Century PAC, which is also spending its money to smear Mack, claims that Mack is a political lightweight who's only passed one bill while in the House. (PolitiFact deemed that one "mostly true" as well.) Mean season, indeed.
The Mack campaign didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.