WASHINGTON — The subtlety to Democratic attacks against GOP congressional candidate Stewart Mills is all but gone — if it was ever there in the first place.
When a Democratic group released a new ad featuring a Mills lookalike boarding a yacht and grilling up lobster tails under an imagined personal crest, the wealth he has gained from his family’s retail company took the starring role in Democrats’ efforts to define Mills ahead of the most hotly contested federal race in Minnesota this cycle.
Mills’ company, the outdoor-goods chain Fleet Farm, does not lend itself to attacks like, say, those used against Mitt Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital, in 2012. But Democrats have introduced a wealth-based argument against Mills nonetheless: that he has inherited his fortune and was given a cushy job at his family’s company, and therefore favors the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has led the charge on this front, pushing out two ads that follow a similar script. The ads, on which the DCCC has spent more than $1 million according to the Sunlight Foundation, accuse Mills of supporting tax breaks for millionaires while opposing them for most Minnesotans. The images underneath the message (the yacht and the lobster, the boat shoes) are obvious allusions to his wealth. And Democrats consistently include a generational suffix in his name to further tie him to his inheritance — he’s “Stewart Mills III.”
“As we head into the final weeks of the campaign, it’s clear that the more voters get to learn about millionaire Stewart Mills III, the more it becomes clear that he would side with the wealthy and the special interests over Minnesota families,” DCCC spokesman Brandon Lorenz said.
Ads highlight push for flatter taxes
Mills said he’s “pretty entertained” that outside groups have hired actors to portray him in their ads “because they don’t want to talk about the issues or [Rep.] Rick Nolan’s record.” His campaign has pushed back against the wealth argument as an attack on the Fleet Farm business itself, which was established by Mills’ grandfather, father and uncle in 1955. Mills’ stake in the company is worth at least $41 million, and he made a salary of $568,000 last year.
There is some context needed to the substance of the DCCC’s attack. Asked about the tax charges in the ad, Mills said he wants to help small- and medium-sized businesses navigate the tax code by flattening the rates and simplifying the code itself. Critics note a flatter tax could mean a lower rate for high-income earners.
“We need simplification of our tax code to make sure our small- and medium-sized businesses that make up over 80 percent of all employers in the 8th District are not put at a competitive disadvantage,” he said.
The ad’s claim that he opposes tax cuts for most Minnesotans is based on his opposition to the 2009 stimulus act, which included a host of tax cuts. But Mills said he was against the stimulus for its increased spending, not its tax provisions.
“For the benefit of the middle class, we need to flatten out the tax code and simplify it,” Mills said.
Other groups join in
When Rick Nolan formally launched his campaign in June, he hit Mills for being a “one-percenter who is there to represent the one percent,” but he’s largely steered clear of personally hitting Mills’ wealth since then. Eighth District DFL chairman Don Bye said area Democratic activists are shying away from that type of rhetoric as well, focusing on propping up Nolan while outside groups play politics with Mills’ wealth.
Besides the DCCC, the liberal House Majority PAC has targeted Mills and his wealth on the air. In this case, it’s an ad using a video of Mills telling a crowd last year that he finds it “personally offensive” when Democrats propose raising taxes using the argument that wealthy people don’t pay their fair share to society.
Mills’ campaign and House Majority PAC tussled a bit over the editing used in the ad, but the speech itself could well live on in this fall’s campaigns. Over the last month, for instance, the state DFL has organized a “Personally Offensive” tour of the district to hit Mills on economic issues.
“He’s trying to portray himself as a regular guy,” DFL chairman Ken Martin said, “but the truth is that he’s an out-of-touch millionaire running for Congress to do what we’ve said, which is cut taxes for the wealthy. Generally, we feel good about pushing this meme for the next 41 days.”
An effective strategy?
The 8th District isn’t the only place where a candidate’s wealth is coming into play — over the summer, Roll Call found at least three other races where personal finances had became a campaign issue. And it’s not just Democrats making the attack: Right-leaning groups like the DCCC’s Republican counterpart, the NRCC, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have used the riches of Democrat Sean Eldridge, a venture capitalist and the husband of a Facebook co-founder, against him in his upstate New York House race.
But University of Minnesota political psychology professor Howard Lavine said wealth-based attacks aren’t necessarily effective. The American electorate generally isn’t anti-wealth, he said, and Mills may navigate the attacks better than most given Fleet Farm’s blue-collar reputation. Mills’ wealth isn’t linked to “some broader narrative” like the one used against Romney, whom Democrats accused of making his millions through corporate raiding.
“I don’t think that people have anything particularly against candidates who are either self-made or wealthy, or have inherited wealth,” he said.
Democrats argue their tactics are more about Mills the would-be congressman than Mills the millionaire businessman — that, as Martin said, his role in the family business has put him out of touch with the struggles of the middle class.
It’s hard to uncouple the businessman and politician, though, and Mills said he’s not worried about having his candidacy tied to any Fleet Farm-based wealth.
“There’s nothing elitist about our business, and people know the true background of the Mills family and Fleet Farm,” he said. “I believe these ads will fall on their faces.”