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Congressional races increasingly nasty, personal

| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 9:04 p.m.

WASHINGTON — It's getting ugly out there.

In hotly contested U.S. House and Senate races, candidates and super PACs are unleashing some of their most damaging material to seal the deal with voters.

The 2012 election is the first point in at least the previous six elections in which voters are inclined to see both the Republican and Democratic parties unfavorably, according to USA TODAY/Gallup polling. If the latest wave of ads is an indication of what's to come, the negativity is unlikely to change that.

In Arizona, which started early voting this week, GOP Senate candidate Rep. Jeff Flake released an ad on Thursday that features Dr. Cristina V. Beato, a former colleague of Arizona Democrat Richard Carmona, speaking to the camera with a somber musical score and declaring: “He has issues with anger, with ethics, and with women.” Republicans had long been favored to win the Arizona Senate seat, but Carmona whittled away at Flake's early lead and it's now considered a competitive toss-up race by election forecasters.

Carmona released a response ad featuring his former SWAT team commander, retired Capt. Kathleen Brennan, stating: “Rich treats everyone with respect. It doesn't matter whether you're male or female. Rich was about protecting people and saving lives.”

In another closely watched race, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., released three ads last week featuring three separate female rape victims declaring their opposition to GOP Rep. Todd Akin, who has been under fire since August for his comments about “legitimate rape” and a false assertion about a rape victim's biological ability to prevent pregnancy.

One of the women in the ads, Diana, identifies herself as a Republican and states: “I've never voted for Claire McCaskill, but because of Todd Akin, I will now.” In Montana, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester's campaign has spent a lot of effort, particularly in the closing weeks, on a 2009 boat crash that involved his opponent, GOP Rep. Dennis Rehberg, raising questions about the influence of alcohol in the crash and even criticizing Rehberg as recently as Friday for not immediately calling his wife after the crash. A Montana judge has scheduled an Oct. 23 hearing to consider releasing investigative reports on the incident requested by a government watchdog group that has been trumpeted by the Tester campaign. “Tester's dishonest personal attacks aren't working,” said Chris Bond, a Rehberg spokesman.

House races have likewise reached a fever pitch. In California, Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman are in a nasty intra-party fight after they were drawn in to the same district because of the 2012 redistricting process. California election laws put the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, on the general election ballot. The campaign neared a physical altercation during a Thursday debate at a community college in the San Fernando Valley when Sherman wrapped his arm around Berman's neck and said, “You want to get into this? Get out of my face.” “Has Brad Sherman lost his mind?” read a Berman release after the debate, accusing him of acting like a bully and being unsuitable for office. “The Pierce College debate was not conducted at the highest level,” Sherman responded. “I regret my part in allowing emotions to distract from the exchange of views.” Redistricting that threw more than two dozen incumbents into member-vs.-member battles is one of many factors stirring up the negativity this year, said Jessica Taylor, a non-partisan election analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report. “It certainly exacerbates the tensions,” she said, “And you find out who your friends are.” Taylor said Sherman is currently favored in the race.

The increased influence of super PACs in the 2012 election also has fueled a new influx of negative ad campaigns, because outside groups who are not on the ballot are more likely to throw punches than an official candidate. “I think it certainly does ratchet up the vitriol in the campaign,” Taylor said of the outside effect.

Take Colorado, where the Democratic House Majority PAC released a 60-second ad on Friday attacking Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., for his opposition to stem-cell research. The ad features a young girl theorizing that she might get diabetes and need the benefits of such research. “Help me,” she says in the ad. “Maybe I'm your little girl.” She adds: “How come he gets to decide who lives and who dies. Who's he?” Coffman's race is rated a toss-up by election forecasters. “The fact that this ad is coming so late, it's really just a sign of desperation,” said Owen Loftus, a spokesman for the Coffman campaign.

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