'I mute them all': Misleading ads in Wisconsin Senate race

Tammy Baldwin Eric Hovde
Posted at 11:08 AM, Jun 06, 2024

MADISON — Eric Hovde, the Republican candidate in Wisconsin’s competitive U.S. Senate race, has aired a campaign ad exclusively featuring senior employees of his real estate company – without disclosing their relationship to him.

The ad comes as political messaging floods the airwaves in battleground Wisconsin ahead of the 2024 election. In the race between Hovde and incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, tens of millions of dollars will be spent to determine the outcome.

But to many voters, the messaging in campaign ads simply isn’t trustworthy, regardless of where it comes from.

“I mute them all,” said voter Kathleen Cairns, 74.

We showed Cairns, who was participating in a peace protest outside the state Capitol, advertisements from both Hovde and Baldwin. Neither was moving for her.

“They don’t speak to the real issues that we are all facing, and they’re all of them biased,” she said. “I hate them.”

Cairns is not alone in her feelings. Less than 10% of Americans believe that campaign messages are always or often based in fact, according to a 2019 AP-NORC public opinion poll.

In Hovde’s recent ad, it’s more than just the messaging that could be seen as misleading. The 30-second video, entitled “Crazy Spending,” shows two vice presidents and a director from Hovde Properties seated in a bar, criticizing liberal policies on a range of issues from transgender athletes to government spending. None of the three men are identified at any point.

Three senior employees of Hovde Properties appeared in a recent ad for Republican Senate candidate Eric Hovde without disclosing their relationships to the candidate.

“I can’t think of an example where three people who are kind of higher-ups in a candidate’s company are featured as regular people shooting the breeze about the campaign,” said Mike Wagner, a UW-Madison professor who studies political communications.

According to Wagner, it’s the buildup of political advertisements that can make a difference by setting the key issues in a race or prompting voters to do their own research on a candidate. He says it’s not uncommon for candidates to use supporters or even paid actors to score those points (although paid actors are usually disclosed in the fine print).

“Now I suppose if you’re Eric Hovde, you can say, ‘It’s me and my coworkers getting a beer after work and I’m bringing them beer, and what’s peculiar about that?’ But I think it’s a little bit deceptive to make it appear as though these are regular folks and not employees,” Wagner said.

Hovde campaign spokesperson Zach Bannon said the three employees were not required to participate in the ad and that they weren’t paid for doing so.

“They are Wisconsin voters first and foremost,” Bannon said when asked why the employees’ relationships to Hovde were not disclosed.

The state Democratic Party brought the advertisement to NBC26’s attention. Baldwin’s campaign and other Democrats have focused their attacks on branding Hovde as an out-of-state and out-of-touch multimillionaire because he owns a $7 million home in California and is CEO of California-based Sunwest Bank.

Hovde Properties, where Hovde is also CEO, is based in Madison – where he was born and raised and lives.

NBC26 went to Hovde Properties’ headquarters but was denied a request to speak to the three men who appeared in the advertisement.

The race in Wisconsin is one of nearly two dozen that Democrats must win nationally if they want to keep their slim majority in the Senate.

Hovde’s campaign has attacked Baldwin’s liberal legislative record and painted the two-term senator as a career politician beholden to special interests.

“Sen. Baldwin is so desperate to talk about anything other than her record of voting with Joe Biden 95.5% of the time that she wants to talk about who is in ads rather than the issues they are justifiably concerned about,” Bannon said in an emailed statement.

Baldwin’s own ads aren’t without potentially misleading information.

In one recent Baldwin ad, entitled “Weight Lifted,” the senator appears alongside supporters who say they benefited from the insulin cost caps included in the Inflation Reduction Act that President Joe Biden signed into law two years ago.

“She stood up to the drug companies and wrote a law capping the cost of insulin,” one supporter says of Baldwin in the ad.

Baldwin supported the Inflation Reduction Act but did not author any amendments to the bill or sit on the committees that approved it. The ad also references a failed bill that Baldwin and more than 30 other Democrats co-sponsored to cap the price of insulin for all diabetics. That bill helped shape the limits in the Inflation Reduction Act, which only sets price caps for Medicare recipients.

Asked about the advertisement, the Baldwin campaign touted her role as chair of a subcommittee that oversees the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services and said Baldwin “has a significant role in the general processing of health care legislation.”

With most voters already locked in on their choices for November, what's the result of all these ads?

"Most campaign ads are not fundamentally changing how people are going to vote or whether they’re going to vote,” Wagner said.

Watch the advertisement featuring Hovde’s employees below:

Watch the advertisement featuring Hovde’s employees here: