Remembering The Texans Who Made Attack Ads Nastier

Jan 2, 2014
Originally published on January 2, 2014 5:18 pm
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In the small world of political high rollers, 2013 marked the loss of two big Republican donors. Texas businessman Harold Simmons and Bob Perry bankrolled some of the scathing TV ads that set the climate of today's politics.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: There had been attack ads before but rarely like this one from the 2004 presidential campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I served with John Kerry. John Kerry cannot be trusted.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is responsible...

OVERBY: An attack this harsh could have backfired coming from President George W. Bush's campaign but Swift Boat Vets was an independent group. Bob Perry and Harold Simmons provided 44 percent of its money. The 2008 campaign had a similar tale. A TV ad sought to link then-candidate Barack Obama to radical militants from the Vietnam War era.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Consider this. United 93 never hit the Capitol on 9/11, but the Capitol was bombed 30 years before by an American terrorist group called Weather Underground that declared war on the U.S...

OVERBY: Simmons completely financed that ad with $3 million to the group American Issues Project.

ROSS RAMSEY: These are the wildcatters of politics.

OVERBY: This is Ross Ramsey. He's a co-founder of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news publication that, in fact, got contributions from both Perry and the Simmons family's foundation as recently as 2012. Ramsey says that Simmons and Perry were old-fashioned, self-made tycoons, holding the reins on their businesses and their money.

RAMSEY: They were still entrepreneurial guys, just single personalities with their, you know, politics and their proclivities. And they could express themselves just by saying let's do this and writing the check.

OVERBY: Simmons was an investor worth $10 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He was 82 when he died last week. His latest project has been a state-sanctioned disposal business in west Texas for hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste. Perry, who died in April at age 80, made a somewhat smaller fortune, putting down housing developments around Houston and San Antonio. So as the old guard starts to thin out, who's replacing them?

RICK TYLER: I do see a new wave of mega-donors coming in.

OVERBY: Rick Tyler is a conservative political consultant. He's with the Strategy Group Company in Washington. Two years ago, he was with the superPAC backing Newt Gingrich for president.

TYLER: The new generation of donors is they are educating themselves much more in the process.

OVERBY: And maybe they won't be as quick on the draw as Perry or Simmons. During 2012's roller-coaster Republican primaries, Simmons managed to give to superPACs for Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry and eventual nominee Mitt Romney. Simmons' wife, Annette, gave to a fourth superPAC for Rick Santorum. Now, Tyler says politics is moving fast into social media and Internet messaging.

TYLER: And that is something that the new breed of donors is much more interested in.

OVERBY: It's a big step away from the old ways of writing a check for one explosive TV spot and then throwing it up on the airwaves.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.