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Globe Editorial

How to combat negative ads

May 9, 2010

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THE GUBERNATORIAL campaign is off to a sour start, thanks to the Republican Governors Association. It has blanketed the region with an old-fashioned attack ad declaring that “Beacon Hill is a mess,’’ and that “Tim Cahill is making it worse.’’ After showing ugly photos of the governor and treasurer, the ad makes a litany of claims — some legitimate, some overblown. The governors association might just as well have posted pictures of Governor Patrick and Cahill and tossed rotten tomatoes at them.

Placing an early spotlight on Patrick and Cahill, rather than Republican candidate Charlie Baker, makes good sense for the GOP. And, in a process that’s by now familiar to most voters, Baker’s fingerprints are nowhere in sight, so any backlash gets directed at the faceless governors association.

Under campaign finance laws, Baker can’t play any role in the advertising of outside groups, so his spokesman isn’t lying when claiming that the Republican candidate is not responsible. “It’s not our ad,’’ declared Rick Gorka. “We didn’t coordinate. We didn’t know of the timing, content, nothing.’’

Fair enough. But candidates have the option of demanding that supporters pull down their ads. Baker hasn’t done it. So voters should put him and all future candidates on alert that the usual dodges won’t apply here. If a candidate doesn’t openly repudiate an ad run in his favor, voters can safely hold the candidate responsible for it.

On Friday, Cahill’s campaign came out with a response ad lampooning the head of the GOP governors association, Haley Barbour of Mississippi. Still, it’s easy to predict that more third-party groups will be jumping into the fray. No doubt groups aligned with Democrats will try to pour gasoline on any fires surrounding Baker, and their tactics will be rough enough that the friendly governor won’t want to be associated with them. Patrick shouldn’t have that option. Voters should take it away from him — and Baker and Cahill — for all future ads. It’s the best way to ensure accountability on the airwaves.

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