Iowa House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow has plenty of reasons to worry about being re-elected in House district 43. During the last presidential election year, he won his race by fewer than two dozen votes, and the district has fewer registered Republicans now than it did in November 2012. His well-qualified challenger Jennifer Konfrst has been working hard, and Democrats in the district have submitted nearly 1,000 more absentee ballot requests than have Republicans.
Hagenow didn't run any positive television commercials during the 2012 election cycle and only started airing a misleading ad against his opponent in late October.
In contrast, a few weeks ago the majority leader went up with a bizarro world tv ad portraying himself as an advocate for education. That spot was ludicrous on several levels, as Bleeding Heartland discussed here and Iowa Starting Line chronicled here. Hagenow has been part of a leadership team that for several years in a row ignored Iowa law on setting K-12 education funding. He and his fellow House Republicans have repeatedly refused to appropriate enough money to help school districts keep up with rising costs. Although Hagenow postures as a supporter of preschool in his tv ad, he voted to eliminate the state preschool program in early 2011. Furthermore, because House Republicans insisted on only a small increase in K-12 school funding this year, the West Des Moines school district (where most of Hagenow's constituents live) cut its 3-year-old preschool program.
But as deceptive as Hagenow's positive ad is, the hit piece he started running against Konfrst on October 5 is even more mendacious.
Naturally, Hagenow hasn't posted his attack ad online. It's in heavy rotation on Des Moines area stations. I saw it five or six times on Wednesday and Thursday. Here's my transcript, with a few screen shots to give you a sense of the visuals:
Female voice-over: Some things you don't forget: your birthday, an anniversary, and of course, there's tax day.
But not Jennifer Konfrst. She had unpaid taxes for five years.
2001, Konfrst didn't pay her taxes.
2002, she didn't pay again.
2004, you guessed it, didn't pay.
2005, why pay now?
2006, let's make it five years of not paying taxes.
How can we trust political insider Jennifer Konfrst? She doesn't pay her taxes.
For now, let's ignore the laughable attempt to portray first-time candidate Konfrst as a "political insider," when her opponent has run for office six times and is now the second-ranking member of the Iowa House majority.
This commercial states unequivocally that Konfrst "didn't pay her taxes" and implies deliberate tax evasion ("why pay now"?). The perky female voice doesn't say which taxes were allegedly upaid--property taxes, federal or state income taxes, payroll taxes? Nor does it offer any documentation to support the claims.
The final line puts the explosive charge in the present tense, leaving the viewer with the strong impression Konfrst still "doesn't pay her taxes."
I called and e-mailed Hagenow on October 5 asking, among other things, on what basis he claims Konfrst did not and does not pay taxes. More than 24 hours later, he has not responded.
Konfrst told me she has always filed her income and property taxes on time. In a Facebook post on October 6, she commented,
Some of you may have seen the new attack ad from my opponent. It appears that instead of focusing on the issues that affect Iowans, my opponent has decided to resort to personal attacks. This kind of attack is exactly what you'd expect from an out-of-touch party leader who can't run on his own record.
The truth is we have always paid our taxes every year. A decade ago while juggling work and child care for our two young children, Lee and I realized we had miscalculated taxes on our child care expenses. We corrected our mistake and paid what was owed.
Personal attacks like this are exactly what voters are saying they're tired of. They want us to put partisan politics aside and do what’s best for Iowans. Every day they're telling me they want better funding for our schools, clean water, and access to mental health care. Those are the issues I'm proud to be talking about.
Hagenow doesn't have the courage to run on his record, so he uses his large campaign war chest to spin fairy tales about his legislative work while a disembodied voice engages in character assassination.
I'm used to Iowa House Republican campaign ads making false claims about public policy, such as alleged spending on heated sidewalks that don't exist. Hagenow's attack ad against his 2012 challenger Susan Judkins was misleading in several respects. But at least that spot kept the focus on public policy.
Hagenow claims there were "five years of not paying taxes"--a lie. Konfrst and her husband paid taxes every year. They just made an accounting error a few times.
To say Konfrst "doesn't pay her taxes" is an even more outrageous lie. Hiding from my request for comment, Hagenow isn't even pretending to have evidence to back up that claim.
The same day this commercial hit the airwaves, the non-partisan organization Every Child Matters sponsored a candidate forum for House districts 42 and 43. Konfrst was there. Hagenow didn't have the guts to show up.
Who can be surprised? If the number two Iowa House Republican were willing to engage in real policy discussions, he'd be paying for tv ads grounded in reality, and he'd be delivering the messages in those ads himself.
In an e-mail blast to supporters on October 6, Konfrst set the record straight about her taxes, adding (emphasis in original),
The smear campaign against me has begun.
Instead of focusing on the issues that affect Iowans, my opponent has decided to resort to negative, personal attacks.
His desperation proves to me what we've known all along: we can win this.
Yes, she can. Barack Obama carried House district 43 in 2012, and Hillary Clinton may outperform Obama in suburban areas like this one. As of October 6, Democrats have requested 2,004 absentee ballots in this district and have returned 568 of them to the Polk County auditor. The corresponding Republican numbers are 1,091 and 148.
UPDATE: KCCI-TV's Cynthia Fodor did a segment about this ad on October 6, but I missed the 6 pm newscast, and the story did not run during the 10 pm newscast. At this writing, KCCI has not posted the video online. Several sources tell me Hagenow refused to comment to KCCI, while Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann defended the commercial, saying Konfrst "didn't follow the rules."
Neither Hagenow nor anyone from the Iowa GOP has provided any documentation supporting claims made in the ad.
Konfrst explained to Fodor that she and her husband did not properly withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes for her day care provider. The Internal Revenue Service put a lien on her home until the bill was paid. The lien would be a public record, which explains how Republicans found out about this problem. (That was one of my questions for Hagenow, who still has not responded to my requests for comment, 48 hours later.)
Kaufmann then said on behalf of the Iowa GOP, "If Jennifer thinks that it's too complicated to figure out her tax bill, then I guess she can, she could present a bill if she was in the legislature to change that, but the law's the law."
Fodor mentioned Trump's apparent failure to pay income taxes for years, to which Kaufmann replied, "Donald Trump followed the law. Jennifer did not. I mean, it's that simple."
Side note: we don't know whether Trump followed the law, because he hasn't released his personal tax returns. We do know from reporting by David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post that the Trump Foundation likely violated laws against self-dealing and possibly evaded some taxes by directing fees owed to him to his foundation instead.
Back to Fodor's story for KCCI. She quoted an Iowa Department of Revenue spokesperson saying it's "not uncommon for families to find themselves in this situation," because many people do not know that they need to submit withholding taxes on behalf of a child care provider.
But she did not fact-check the ad or press Kaufmann on Republican claims that Konfrst didn't pay any taxes for five years and still "doesn't pay her taxes."
That the ad's central claim is false was entirely lost in Fodor's "View from Nowhere" reporting.
Meanwhile, KCCI is rolling in GOP ad buys. I've seen the hit piece on Konfrst at least four more times on Channel 8 since Fodor's story aired on October 7.
I will update this post as needed if I see any other local media coverage of this story.