NCPAC's Waterloo

TAKING SIDES

BEFORE 1980, a "hit list" was something only rival Mafia families worried about. But when the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) adapted the concept to U.S. Senate races by targeting liberal Democrats for an onslaught of negative media advertising, "hit list" joined the American political lexicon for good. And the committee's sharpshooters hit their marks with stunning accuracy--NCPAC-backed conservatives handily defeated progressive stalwarts like George McGovern, Frank Church and Birch Bayh. The chilling words of NCPAC chief Terry Dolan--"we want people to hate Birch Bayh without even knowing why"--conveyed an unmistakable message to jittery liberals: the age of political mind control had arrived.

In 1982, Maryland Democrat Paul Sarbanes is tops on NCPAC's list. Since April of 1981--when its pollsters detected some anti-Sarbanes sentiment in Maryland--NCPAC has been airing TV and radio ads reviling the first-termer as a do-nothing who loves to bus little children and fritter away tax money. Never mind that the iconoclastic Sarbanes has voted against busing legislation 29 times, or that he voted against the recent Reagan tax increases; the Senator, says NCPAC's Joe Stephen, is "a liberal in everything he does."

It's already cost NCPAC $500,000 to air its tale of Sarbanes depradation, and the group expects to spend another $50,000 before November. Only in the last two weeks, however, has NCPAC actually been supporting anyone for Senator: Republican Larry Hogan, a former congressman and currently a County Executive in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Stephan claims that NCPAC took the unprecedented and--because of the organization's officially non-partisan status--possibly illegal step of endorsing Hogan because he was unknown in such of the state. Stephen denies that the move had anything to do with a September 12 Baltimore Sun poll showing Sarbanes leading Hogan by 2-1, with only 11 percent undecided.

For his part, Hogan has been awfully quick to accept NCPAC a support. "We don't mind anybody Laying nice things about him," a campaign side told the Washington Post. Once a moderate who acted to impeach Richard Nixon, Hogan now echoes NCPAC's calls for massive tax cuts, school prayer, and a beefed-up defense establishment. And Hogan is taking his born-again Reaganism on the road, telling well-heeled Western PAC-men like Justin Dart, Joseph Coors, and H.L. Hunt that the only way to "get" Paul Sarbanes is to bankroll his effort.

BUT THE Hogan-NCPAC connection has itself become a hot campaign issue that plays right into Sarbanes's hands. Every time Hogan picks up another conservative PAC endorsement or appears on a NCPAC TV spot. Sarbanes charge that Hogan is a shill for alien manipulators gain credibility. In addition, Hogan's tilt to the New Right links him with President Reagan. That's good news for Sarbanes, too, because like people in many other hard-pressed states. Marylanders increasingly blame Reagan for high unemployment. Sarbanes's spokesman Bruce Frame notes that the top campaign issues are "jobs, jobs, and jobs," and says that the senator will emphasize his consistent opposition to Reaganomics.

NCPAC's Stephan is quick to point out--somewhat sheepishly--that NCPAC "knows people don't like us" and that, in any case, "we're just advertising the voting record." But maybe what he's afraid to admit is that NCPAC has simply blown it this time around.

Although NCPAC preferred to see things in narrow ideological terms, styling Sarbanes as too liberal for Maryland, the odds have always been in Sarbanes favor. He has strong roots in key areas of the state like Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, and Maryland's voters--who supported Carter over Reagan in 1980--traditionally support Democrats.

NCPAC could have found all this out if they had ever bothered to do any grass-roots organizing along with their polling. But that would have violated a basis NCPAC principal--that voters are infinitely manipulatable by political-technological gimmickry. This time, NCPAC's slavish adherence to this notion has resulted only in an enormous waste of New Right money and a backlash against their preferred candidate. In Maryland, at least, the voters still know the difference between a Senate campaign and an ad campaign.