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.
"Your feedback is critical to my effort to shape a positive campaign," said a campaign e-mail dated June 14, the day before Ashcroft's first 60-second biographical ads began running on St. Louis TV stations.
Not surprisingly, most of the edited reviews the campaign has posted on the Ashcroft site are good ones, but there is some constructive criticism. Several reviewers wondered about a reference to the Social Security "lock box"—the GOP proposal for protecting the federal fund that pays for the national retirement program.
"Do the viewers of the ad understand the (Social Security) lock box that was referred to?" wrote Larry Absheer, a regular Ashcroft donor from Webster Groves, Mo.
Ashcroft's Web site is now soliciting comments on another TV ad, which began airing Thursday. The spot's title, as it turns out: "Social Security Lock Box."
"I got to believe all these ads were made beforehand," said Absheer, who so far has not answered the campaign's request for more feedback on the new ad.
Hacker Targets Gun-Control Advocates
A hacker set his sites earlier this month on the Web site of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based gun-control advocacy group. For at least two days, the center's anti-gun message was replaced by someone who doesn't share the organization's mission. "If you take my guns, I still have my computer," wrote a hacker identified on the defaced site as "D0main Hijax."
The hijacker also gained access to the center's private e-mail, sending a message from VPC's account to Common Cause Press Secretary Jeff Cronin, threatening to order calling cards in Cronin's name. Common Cause is an interest group best known for lobbying for changes to campaign-finance laws.
The Web site was overtaken by someone who convinced VPC's domain name registrar to switch the computer to which the center's Web address pointed. The center's Web address normally points to its actual Web page, which is hosted by Earthlink. The hijacker redirected the address so that it pointed to the defaced site housed at a Canadian Web hosting service called Netfirms.
A VPC spokeswoman said the organization is working with the FBI to identify the hijacker.