The National Republican Senatorial Committee wants you to know that Betsy Sweet is too liberal for Maine.

This is such important information that the organization rented a box truck to drive around Portland recently to advertise Sweet’s left-wingedness. 

To make sure everyone understands how far to the port side she lists, they decorated the truck with a very attractive, smiling picture of her, and paired it with portraits of well-known congressional progressives, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Why would the NRSC be so interested in letting Mainers know to look out for Sweet, who is a candidate in next June’s Democratic primary to run against Sen. Susan Collins? 

Couple of possibilities: They really care about Maine Democrats and don’t want them to risk nominating someone who is out of sync with the state’s values.

Or, they are only pretending to attack Sweet by associating her name and image with policies and politicians that are very popular in Portland.

I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s No. 2. I know it sounds cynical, but as I get older I’ve observed that people don’t always say what they mean.

My suspicion was reinforced by a story in Politico with the headline: “Why is the NRSC putting up billboards attacking candidates you’ve never heard of?”

In addition to Maine, the website reports, the Republicans have paid for billboards in Colorado, Georgia and North Carolina with the exact same artwork we saw on the truck, except in those states they are on real billboards, which are illegal here.

They appear to be boosting outsider candidates like Sweet by pretending to attack them, so that more establishment candidates, like Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, will have to work harder in their primary races.

The Politico writers are wrong about one thing: Betsy Sweet is well known in Maine (she finished third in an seven-way gubernatorial primary last year). But you have to figure that if the D.C.-based writers don’t know who she is, the D.C.-based political operatives don’t, either. They have no idea who might be too liberal for Maine or not liberal enough. But they know that it’s good for them when the other side is divided.

You don’t have to agree with their analysis to see what they are up to: This is about creating chaos.

It’s the kind of bank shot the U.S. Chamber of Commerce tried to pull in 2012, when it bought a TV ad touting Democrat Cynthia Dill as “the real progressive” in the U.S. Senate race, hoping she would take votes away from independent Angus King and create a path to victory for Republican Charlie Summers.

It didn’t work, but that same year Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill ran Republican primary ads supporting – er, I mean “attacking” – Todd Akin for being too conservative. He did win the nomination shortly before becoming a national joke, when he shared his theory that “legitimate rape” can’t lead to pregnancy.

These are pretty crude versions of the kinds of social media misdirection campaigns that played such a big role in 2016.

According to the Mueller report, Russian military intelligence employed about 90 people in an office in St. Petersburg tasked with creating fake American identities and organizations. Some of them started by sharing kitten videos or pictures of women in bikinis. Among the identities were fake LGBT groups, fake Black Lives Matter-style organizations and groups with names like “United Muslims for Hillary.” As Election Day got closer, these social media networks could be flooded with disinformation designed to sow distrust and make potential voters stay home.

It’s the kind of thing we should expect to see more of, and not necessarily from Russia. There is no obvious path for the Democrats to take control of the Senate without winning in Maine, so both parties and their allied groups have indicated that they are going to spend whatever it takes to win here.

With so much money flying around, expect to see it spent in some creative ways. The Russian experience shows it’s easy to create chaos. 

Before taking any political information at face value, even if it’s something you already believe to be true, you need to be ready to ask yourself a few questions: Who wants me to know this, and why? And if you can’t tell who they are, why don’t they want you to know?

Whether it’s a TV ad or an Instagram post, the old rule is still the best one: Consider the source.

 


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