Candidates of All Stripes Seek to Label Opponents “Extreme”

No matter what your political views may be, if you’re in a contested race for federal office this cycle, someone, somewhere, is probably calling you “extreme.”

In the wake of this year’s primary successes of Tea Party-backed candidates, Democrats have been eager to affix the “extreme” label to Republicans of all stripes. For their part, many in the GOP have also fired it right back at their opponents.

Case in point: Wednesday night’s Pennsylvania Senate debate. Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey swapped accusations that the other was “extreme” no less than 14 times in an hour-long exchange.

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“What I’m most concerned about are those extreme candidates that are actually taking advantage of the extreme fringe of the Tea Party,” said Sestak, lumping Toomey — a former congressman and president of anti-spending organization Club for Growth — together with perennial-candidate-turned-Delaware GOP nominee Christine O’Donnell .

“The person who’s the extreme candidate that is so far out of touch with Pennsylvania is Joe Sestak,” Toomey immediately fired back.

All told, Toomey – the Republican – outpaced Sestak with using the “extreme” description to describe his opponent, eight times to six.

While Toomey has the backing of some Tea Party elements, he is not as typical a target of Democratic attacks as insurgent GOP candidates like O’Donnell or Colorado’s Ken Buck – both of whom won contested primaries against Republicans who were widely viewed as more viable general election candidates.

Toomey advocates a ban on abortion, for example, but he supports an exception for cases of rape and incest. (O’Donnell and Buck do not.)  There’s no ambiguity about his position on the 17th amendment — the edict that allows for direct election of senators — while Utah’s Mike Lee and Alaska’s Joe Miller have suggested it should be repealed.

Still, Toomey and Sestak’s swapping of accusations – “Oh yeah? You’re the extreme one!” – is a pattern being repeated in races nationwide.

Candidates running against Tea Party-backed GOP nominees have lobbed ads and rhetorical grenades labeling their competitors “too extreme” for their state, frequently citing their opponents’ conservative positions on social issues and support for draconian reductions in the scope of government. Republicans counter that many parts of the legislative initiatives pushed by the Obama administration are far more radical than the views of their candidates.

When Democrat Jack Conway said in a recent debate that Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul “would undo all that we have fought for since the Great Depression,” Paul snapped back, "When people say, 'Gosh, that's extreme,' what's extreme is what's going on in Washington.” 

An ad for Colorado Senate incumbent Michael Bennet labels Buck “too extreme” because of his views on family planning and abortion.  “I'm not the one in Washington, D.C., with a $13 trillion debt … That's extreme, and he continues to vote in that direction," Buck countered at a campaign event.

There’s even some intra-party accusations. In Alaska, GOP write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski’s first general election ad slammed primary winner Joe Miller’s “extreme views.” A pro-Miller ad funded by the Jim DeMint-backed Senate Conservatives Fund counters that Murkowski’s stance on abortion is too “extreme” for voters in the state.

No candidate has been labeled “extreme” more than Nevada GOP candidate Sharron Angle, who has suggested that Social Security should be privatized and tossed around phrases like “Second Amendment remedies”  to address the quandary of big government. Democratic opponent (and Senate majority leader) Harry Reid’s ads have hammered away at those “out of the mainstream” positions. “She is extreme, she is dangerous, and embarrassing to the state of Nevada,” Reid told MSNBC this week.

Photoblog: Faces of the Tea Party

Angle has sought to clarify some of those statements, assuring reporters that she is a “mainstream American” and that she’ll “fit in just fine” with like-minded members of Congress. Reid, she says, is the one who “has forgotten what Nevada is all about.”

Although candidates like Buck, Angle, and O’Donnell were not the choices of national Republicans – in part because they were viewed by GOP leaders as unviable because of their views – their counterargument has gotten an assist from the party establishment.

Asked about Angle, O’Donnell, and other candidates who are being charged with fanaticism, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell crystallized the GOP stance last month, saying on ABC’s “This Week,” that "what most Americans think is extreme is the kind of government we've been running for the last year-and-a-half.”

And a web video promoted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee summed up the argument this summer, citing poll numbers showing broad disapproval of Obama’s policy positions.

‘Mr. President, that’s extreme,” reads text at the end of the ad. “Don’t believe us? You’ll find out on Nov. 2.”

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