So few incumbent members of Congress face serious challenges for their seats that some states' delegations have run virtually unopposed for re-election. But those members who do find their job security challenged often turn out to be the candidates who hit the hardest—on the stump, in their ads, and now on the Web.
That appears to be the case in Utah's 2nd District, where Republican Rep. Merrill Cook faces one of the toughest primary contests in the country this Tuesday.
Cook's site has the overwhelmingly negative tone more typical of a challenger. The congressman devotes the bulk of his home page to a side-by-side issue comparison intended to unmask "the 'real' Derek Smith," Cook's GOP rival. The chart is annotated in red, calling special attention to hot-button issues such as gun rights, even when there are no differences between the candidates to highlight. ("Do you really think Derek Smith will stand up for what's right when the lobbyists come calling?" the site asks about the Second Amendment. "Think really hard about this one. It's your constitution.")
Most incumbents' Web sites are not so overtly negative. Like other parts of their campaign message machine, incumbent sites usually rely heavily on biographical information and details about the candidates' records. Cook has no such page, but he offers some insight into his mettle for the job in a list of top 10 reasons why Cook will win: "1. He's crazy enough to WIN. Let's face it, you have to be crazy to be in politics and some think Merrill might be over-qualified."
Cook's site doesn't spend much time on the issues, despite the extensive issue comparison on his home page. While the site does have a menu of eight issues that might be found on any Republican campaign site, none of them discuss Cook's detailed positions. Instead, they link to "message boards" on three topics. As of Monday, there was one message posted to any of them.
Challenger Derek Smith is mounting a much more typical online campaign. On his site, users can watch TV commercials, donate money, volunteer time, or visit the campaign press office (in which the campaign blatantly posts the complete text of copyrighted news stories from the New York Times and other newspapers).
One reason the GOP primary is so competitive is that it essentially pits the incumbent, Cook, against his fellow Republican, Rep. Chris Cannon from the neighboring 3rd District.
Cannon has endorsed Smith in the primary against Cook. When Smith entered the race in March, shortly after Cannon's former chief of staff Mark Emerson gave up his candidacy, the Emerson staff moved to the new challenger's campaign lock, stock, and URL. One of those staffers was Emerson campaign manager Todd Thorpe. When he took the same position with the Smith campaign, he also brought Emerson's old Web address, emersonforcongress.com, and redirected it to Smith's site.
Ashcroft Supporters Give Ads Virtual Thumbs Up
Another one of this year's most hard-fought campaigns is the Missouri Senate race, in which Republican incumbent John Ashcroft faces Mel Carnahan, the state's Democratic governor. To keep this race positive, Ashcroft is turning to his online supporters for help with his first TV ad campaign, soliciting reviews on his Web site and in a note to his e-mail list subscribers.