Nevada media pillory Oceguera attack ad

An "outrageous" ad in a House race raises questions—including whether starting a controversy was the aim

NEVADA — Here in the Silver State, John Oceguera isn’t a household name—although, as the Democratic nominee for the House of Representatives in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, he’d like to be.

Sure, Oceguera’s the Speaker of the state Assembly—but the legislature hasn’t been in session since June of 2011, so he’s not making any headlines in that role. And while his campaign for Congress is getting some attention from journalists, much of it has been unflattering at best.

I first blogged about Oceguera’s trouble with the local media corps in May. In two separate TV interviews in the Las Vegas market, Oceguera, a retired-firefighter-turned-politician, was tongue-tied and unprepared when asked whether he—a Democrat, remember—would have voted for the Affordable Care Act.

Since that episode, Oceguera went on to win his party’s primary, and he’s now trying to unseat the first-term incumbent, Republican Joe Heck, an osteopath and Army reservist who served in Iraq. Though some campaign-watchers consider the race a toss-up, a September poll found Heck up by double digits.

It remains to be seen how Oceguera will do with voters, but he was pilloried again by Nevada journalists last week. The occasion was the release on Oct. 8 of an attack ad in which an Oceguera surrogate—a woman who describes herself as a victim of sexual violence—levels allegations against Heck:

I see the fear in their eyes… For many victims of rape or abuse, it’s a matter of life and death. I know because I was a victim myself.

I don’t know why Joe Heck would vote against funding for a rape crisis center, try to restrict rape victims’ access to abortion and opposed funding to help victims of domestic violence. Maybe he’s never had to look in their eyes.

But if Joe Heck doesn’t stand up for them—just who is he standing up for?

Condemnation of the ad has been loud and clear from virtually every major political news outlet in Las Vegas, and from both journalists who wear their political views on their sleeve and those who play it straight.

On Oct. 9, libertarian commentator Elizabeth Crum, co-host of the “The Agenda” on KSNV-Las Vegas, blasted the ad as “one of the most dishonest, despicable political ads I have ever seen.” (The discussion starts at the 7:28 mark of this clip.) The same day, David McGrath Schwartz, writing the “Line of Attack” feature for the Las Vegas Sun, deemed the ad “outrageous.”

A couple of days later the state’s largest paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, weighed in, with columnist Steve Sebelius calling it “untrue.” Also on Oct. 10, Jon Ralston, whom many consider the dean of Nevada political journalists, took the Ocegeura campaign to task on his new Ralston Reports website, calling the ad “desperate and revolting.”

Ralston also, very helpfully, posted the Oceguera campaign’s fact sheet for the ad, and taking a look at it provides some clues about why journalists here were so upset. The claim against Heck voting against funds for a rape crisis center and support for domestic violence victims is narrowly true, but lacking important context. Here’s how McGrath Schwartz described the relevant history in the Sun:

At issue is a bill at the end of the 2007 [Nevada] legislative session. Like almost every other year, leftover money was bundled together in a big bill to fund special projects—sometimes referred to as pork. Among the 42 projects in Senate Bill 579—which included community centers, park projects, $150,000 for an “Online Nevada Encyclopedia”— was $250,000 for a rape crisis center and $200,000 for a nonprofit group’s domestic violence prevention program.

Heck was one of only two [state] senators to vote against the bill.

Heck, his campaign said in a statement, voted against the bill because it was introduced only a few hours before the Legislature ended.

“While there were a number of quality provisions,” Heck’s campaign said in a statement, “the truth is taxpayers have every right to expect a more substantial consideration of spending bills.”

Or, as the Review-Journal’s Sebelius put it, you could credibly argue that Heck voted against the crisis center funding. But “then again, one could credibly argue he voted no because he thought $200,000 was too much to spend on exhibits for the California Trail Interpretative Center, or that the Advisory Council for Organic Agricultural Projects was spending too much, or that an oral history of the Nevada Legislature just wasn’t worth $228,056.”

The other claim—about restricting rape victims’ access to abortion—is a bit more complicated, even as journalists here deemed it more outrageous. It stems from Heck’s support for H.R. 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which sailed through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in 2011 but did not become law. The measure would have blocked women from taking advantage of federal tax or other benefits to pay for abortions—but, as journalists here angrily noted, the bill specifically exempted abortions for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest.

Oceguera’s claim rests on the idea that the prospect of after-the-fact “rape audits,” which some critics of the bill warned about, amount to restricting access. But that claim didn’t fly with journalists here—and even Mother Jones reporter Nick Baumann, whose reporting was cited by Oceguera’s campaign, said the Democrat would have been “on much stronger ground” if Heck had sponsored an earlier version of the bill that explicitly narrowed the definition of rape.

As several media members here have noted, Oceguera’s inflammatory and truth-stretching ad is puzzling, given the material he has to work with on this front. In his column, Sebelius made some sharp points:

Oceguera’s campaign argues Heck has cast other votes that are harmful to women, including votes to take away federal funding for Planned Parenthood. (That organization is prohibited from using federal money to pay for abortions, but federal money is used for myriad other health programs and contraception that helps prevent unwanted pregnancy in the first place.) And that, unlike the H.R. 3 or SB 579 attacks, is a legitimate point.

The fact is, Heck is pro-life. He’s never hidden that fact. And he’s voted that way since coming to Congress. For those who disagree and feel strongly about that issue, his record will cost him votes.
And Hugh Jackson, Crum’s liberal counterpart and co-host on “The Agenda,” had this to say:
[T]his effort to chip away at a woman’s right to choose is typically led, the charge is led, by middle-aged, Republican men. And Heck in this up to his eyeballs.

…There’s no reason to go where they’ve gone here. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to go after Heck on the issue of women’s health and this [Oceguera] ad misses those marks.

On the other hand, maybe starting a controversy is the point—which means taking some liberties with the truth might be a feature, not a bug. In his post, Ralston offered this interesting and characteristically hard-bitten analysis:

Here’s what I think: Oceguera and friends know they are behind. They don’t care about the media criticism. They revel in it, in fact, and don’t much care about the veracity of the spot. Indeed, the more attention it gets, the more people might believe all of it. And there are plenty of Gross Ratings Points behind it that will more than compensate for us Fourth Estate whiners.

In an email to me, Ralston expanded on his take.

“A charitable view would be that they have deluded themselves into rationalizing it,” he wrote. “In their desperate effort to push female voters away from Heck, they simply are willing to do almost anything, including putting on an ad with false implications and false history to outrage female voters.”

And if that false history, by sparking journalistic outrage, keeps the subject of abortion rights, support for rape victims, and Heck’s voting record in the news, Oceguera might benefit even as he’s facing criticism. It’s something for journalists eager to denounce the ad to keep in mind.

At the same time, this episode does raise some questions for both Oceguera and Heck that I’m still waiting to hear addressed, even after the two met in a televised debate on Oct. 11.

For Oceguera, the question might be how, specifically, his opponent has sought to restrict abortion access for rape victims in particular. When pressed, his campaign has tended to fall back to attacking Heck’s overall record—but what’s the specific connection?

Heck, meanwhile, has called his opponent’s attacks “blatant false statements” even as he has fallen back on procedural claims. He says he voted against the crisis center funding because it was bundled with other projects and thrust before lawmakers with 24 hours to vote. But he’s now had more than four years to think about it—does he support that spending?

Due to redistricting, I no longer live in NV-3. Still, I’d like to hear more from both the incumbent and the challenger on just where the truth lies. Will someone please step up and ask the questions—before it’s too late to matter?

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Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.