Vernon Robinson, the indefatigable yet unsuccessful conservative candidate for public office in North Carolina, is a master of the campaign attack ad. His most recent commercials pillory his latest opponent, incumbent U.S. Rep. Brad Miller in the 13th Congressional District, which includes much of Raleigh.
"Instead of spending money on cancer research, Brad Miller spent your money to study the masturbation habits of old men," says the narrator in a deep, incredulous voice. "Brad Miller even spent your tax dollars to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia." After 60 seconds of such thoughtful abuse, Robinson tells viewers, "I approve of this message because Brad Miller is out of touch, and soon he'll be out of Congress."
But chances are Miller isn't going anywhere. The odds are stacked against Robinson in Miller's solidly Democratic district. And if history is any indication, Robinson will concede victory in November. He's mounted numerous campaigns using his characteristic invective but has never convinced voters outside his hometown of Winston-Salem that he's good enough for the job. He has, however, orchestrated a fund-raising machine that's collected $804,934 from people across the country (Miller has raised $968,340). Robinson's supporters apparently pay not for campaign victory but rather to broadcast Robinson's heated rhetoric over North Carolina's television and radio airwaves.
"Without the immediate and generous financial support of you and folks like you, I will not have the resources to bypass the liberal media and communicate directly with the voters through TV, radio, and mail," Robinson's Web site says on the page where voters can contribute money. "Help me get more ads on the air."
Thousands pay Robinson to say what no one else will. And for that reason he ranks among the nation's most successful congressional fundraisers.
Appearances on Rush Limbaugh and Fox News have raised his profile. And most of his commercials are on YouTube.com, a Web site where people can watch and share videos. Robinson's campaign spots have been viewed tens of thousands of times. Eighty percent of Robinson's campaign contributions come from out-of-state donors, according to an Associated Press report in July.
He's garnered considerable support closer to home, too. Several prominent North Carolinians supported his message enough to open their checkbooks: Gary and Donald Allred, president and vice president of K&W Cafeterias; Paul Breitbach, retired vice president and CFO of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts; Alan Dick, chairman of the board of the Ruddick Corporation, the parent company of Harris Teeter; and Thomas S. Kenan III, former chairman of the board of Kenan Transport. Even U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, Robinson's former opponent (and attack victim), gave $1,000. (One ad said about her: "This feminist voted to create special rights for homosexuals and took money from radical gay PACs.")
The ads have taken liberties with the truth, according to Factcheck.org, a nonpartisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that monitors the factual accuracy of campaign ads. The site analyzes the commercial, referenced above, in which Robinson also claims Miller voted against appropriating money for body armor for soldiers in Iraq because "he would just rather spend it on sex." Miller says he supported supplemental appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan seven of the eight times they came up for a vote. He missed the October 2003 vote, the one Robinson references, because "I was in Iraq wearing body armor in a Black Hawk helicopter," he says. "I was actually visiting with men and women in harm's way to hear what they need."
In regard to the sex studies, Factcheck's analysis shows that Miller voted against an amendment that would have canceled preexisting grant money to support research at the National Institutes of Health. The amendment would have canceled funding for just five of 40,000 small studies at NIH that totaled about $2 million in grant money, Miller says.
Opponents objected to Congress' political interference into scientific research. "I support letting scientists decide what should be the subject of study," Miller says.
The studies in question sought to curb the spread of AIDS, examine how declining sexual function affects the quality of life of elderly men, and understand homosexuality and bisexuality in Native American populations. "Some of the studies that have been made to sound the most ridiculous have produced the greatest breakthroughs," Miller says, though he admits that Robinson's latest allegations are "the most truthful ones. Some of the stuff he just flat makes up."
Robinson's other ads target gays, lesbians, feminists, liberal judges, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and illegal immigrants. Robinson is African American. "The ads on immigration are the most open appeals to racism I've ever seen in North Carolina politics," Miller says.
Robinson declined a request to be interviewed for this article.
Miller says that Robinson is in "the phase a lot of little boys go through in eighth grade when they are willing to say anything as long as it's vulgar.... It is disturbing that ads that hateful find an audience of people willing to pay."