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Candidates shower suburban voters with mailers
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff


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Published: 10/30/2008 12:01 AM

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You might not normally let into your home a slick, fast-talking huckster who spews anger and touts pictures of two-headed politicians, scary eyes, rotten apples, broken eggs and heads as teed-up golf balls.

But this is a hot campaign season.

More than a dozen fierce races across the suburbs have spurred scores of mailers - many of them highly negative, coarse and offensive.

"Oh, my God, they are so negative," said Christine Dolgopol, who says she has been inundated with fliers at her Wheeling home from highly contested races in an almost "daily barrage."

Campaigns on both sides of the aisle have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on such direct mail and they are hoping it may hold the key to victory, even if some of the pieces offer more shock than substance.

"The postal worker is the new precinct committeeman," says Paul Green, political professor at Roosevelt University. "In a close election, it does make a difference."

And there may be a lot of close elections this year.

From the state level to Congress, Democrats are spending millions of dollars to win over previously Republican seats from Elk Grove to Elgin, Naperville and Round Lake.

Meanwhile, Republicans are spending big bucks to hang on to their dwindling power.

Much of that cash ends up in mailboxes in the form of mailers that often involve shoddy Photoshop work and outlandish accusations.

Political watchers generally invoke two observations when it comes to direct mail pieces: They work and you can't trust them.

Candidates spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers because they ensure that prospective voters at least glance at them. Those few seconds of unfiltered interaction between the voter and the candidate's message can be priceless.

Plus, candidates can tailor that message in a way they can't on TV ads.

In addition to voter registration data, campaigns collect reams of postal lists from ideological groups, including unions, business organizations and groups on both sides of controversial issues like abortion.

Then candidates can craft postcard messages designed specifically for a certain audience, from business owners to abortion activists to union members.

"You can say things in a mailer to those groups that you wouldn't say in an ad during the six o'clock news," says Kent Redfield, interim director for the Institute of Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois in Springfield.

Mailers in this year's suburban races have been largely funded by national and state party organizations. (The ad's author is written in small type near the mailing address.)

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has paid for hundreds of thousands of dollars in mailers supporting Dan Seals of Wilmette in his bid against U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk.

The 10th district pieces tie Kirk to President George Bush. One actually shows Bush pulling puppet strings that hold the Highland Park Republican's arms and legs.

Kirk, who has adamantly maintained that he has gone against Bush when he saw fit, has countered with positive mailers about his endorsements from Democratic-leaning groups like Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club.

The state Republican and Democratic Parties also have been big spenders.

Illinois Democratic Party mailers that follow the same pattern across several suburban districts have been used to undermine support for GOP candidates for weeks.

One uses an ugly yet enduring image from the country's long-running debate over legalized abortion, showing the opponent in an alley with a coat hanger on a sign that reads "back alley medical services." The mailer is meant to highlight the Republican's opposition to legalized abortion.

Such indelicate images and language are not confined to one party. Republican mailers have generally tried to tie the Democrat to Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

In one race, the flier repeatedly says "Guilty" next to pictures of the targeted candidate and statements about their alleged support for tax hikes and affiliation with Blagojevich. Another is splashed with pictures of mud.

In addition to mailers funded by the two major parties, lobbying groups also are spending money to send their messages into homes. They include legalized abortion supporters and opponents and the state's Realtors organization.

Political watchers warn voters shouldn't put much stock in what the mailers say. Many are misleading and based on distorted facts, at the very least.

"It is political propaganda. It is no different from those political blogs," says Green. "They are not spending that kind of money to be good citizens."