When Dana vanBever answered her telephone one evening last month, she became one of the 300 participants of a Republican-funded survey that described the voting record of Del. David Englin (D-45) as one that would give lighter sentences to terrorists and allow children access to pornography. She was asked if she would be more of less likely to vote for Englin if she knew that he had been voted the "least effective legislator" by "a leading, non-partisan business association." As vanBever participated in the survey — in which she offered information on her voting habits, issue preferences and demographic profile — she became an active participant in the opening stages of what may prove to be a nasty battle for power in Virginia’s 45th District. Republican challenger Mark Allen’s campaign has come out swinging, and the forceful poll may be the first indication of how nasty the campaign might get as voters prepare to cast their ballots this November.
"The questions were very biased and provocative," said vanBever, who said that she voted for Englin during his first run in November 2005. "They were so completely loaded that I was left with the impression that they felt I should be afraid of David. Frankly, I felt insulted that they were trying to make me afraid."
Allen’s campaign said that the poll was conducted by the Tarrance Group, a national Republican polling firm whose clients have included the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) and Republican Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. Although Allen’s campaign manager declined to disclose how much Allen paid for the poll, campaign finance records indicate that the Tarrance Group contributed $3,000 to the Republican Party of Virginia earlier this year.
"These were very generic questions," said David Rexrode, who is managing Republican Mark Allen’s challenge to the incumbent Democratic House member. "The poll attempted to reach a very general distribution of registered voters in the 45th District."
<b>SEVERAL VOTERS WHO</b> were contacted by the Tarrance Group said that they were insulted by the questions, many of which extrapolated dire consequences as a result of Englin’s votes in Richmond. The survey’s script seemed to indicate, for example, that Englin’s opposition to the death penalty would benefit terrorists who attack America and men who kill pregnant women. It implied that his opposition to computer filters in libraries would result in children having access to pornography, and it asked if recipients knew that Englin is proudly "one of the most liberal legislators" in Richmond with an "extremely liberal agenda."
"I got so angry that I hung up," said Denise Meringolo, a history professor at the University of Maryland who is a registered voter in the 45th District. "But then they called me back and said that their records indicated I hadn’t finished the survey."
Although she was shocked that a pollster made a second point of contact after being rejected, Meringolo participated in the remainder of the survey and took careful notes. She said that several of the questions started from a premise that was true — such as Englin’s opposition to the death penalty — then made sweeping judgments about how Republicans might spin his record during the fall campaign. In order for the professor to support open access for library computers, for example, she was forced into answering the questions in a way that she described as "distasteful."
"I was essentially forced to agree that I was strongly in favor of children seeing porn because my stand on free access to information," she said. "I guess they were trying to figure out what kind of full frontal attack they want going to launch against Englin."
<b>LAUNCHING ATTACKS</b> is a time-honored tradition in American politics, and this year’s House races have already seen the strain of a campaign season in which the stakes are high as control over the General Assembly is at stake. According to a report in the Loudoun Connection (a sister paper of the Alexandria Gazette Packet), Del. David Poisson (D-32) was the recipient of similar surveys in his home district. Several voters in Loudoun County reported receiving telephone calls asking if recipients knew that Poisson was a closeted homosexual who harbored illegal aliens and had business ties to Jack Abramoff. Former Del. Marian Van Landingham, who represented the 45th District from 1982 to 2006, said that her first experience with these kinds of attacks was during her last reelection campaign in 2003.
"I think this is low-down politics," said Van Landingham. "The Republicans should really be ashamed of this kind of behavior."
Englin’s campaign responded to the survey immediately by e-mail, asking supporters to participate if contacted and take detailed notes. Shayna Englin, wife of the delegate and campaign manager for the reelection effort, said that having information on the content of the poll’s script could prove to be an invaluable asset in terms of coordinating a preemptive attack on what she called "Karl Rove politics." Now that Rove has resigned under a cloud of suspicion involving some questionable personnel decision at the United States Department of Justice, Shayna Englin said that Democrats have the momentum heading into the fall campaign.
"I think the Republicans have decided that there is no path to victory unless they can really tear down David," she said. "So they are trying to find a message that will keep voters home on Election Day."