The defeat of Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato Tuesday was also a big defeat for controversial campaign strategist, Arthur Finkelstein, the reclusive D’Amato protege who has made one-note attack ad on “liberals” his specialty.
Similarly, Democratic Rep. Charles Schumer’s triumph over D’Amato heralds the rise of newer campaign guru, Hank Morris, a feisty strategist who specializes in helping Democratic centrists repulse the often disabling liberal label.
Just as the two candidates’ well-funded contest was seen by many as a battle of titans, the two Jewish strategists behind them were also understood to be engaged in a conflict whose ramifications went far beyond New York state.
A Queens College graduate, Finkelstein, 53, has become famous — or infamous, depending on one’s view — for honing the art of the attack ad to a deadly fine point; one invariably poison-tipped and dripping with the venomous epithet “liberal.” In Finkelstein’s ads, this once descriptive word has become an often-fatal pejorative through endless repetition in terms like “ultraliberal,” “embarrassingly liberal,” “hopelessly liberal” and “too liberal, too long.”
Morris, a 45-year-old Harvard alumnus, ran Schumer’s upbeat campaign during a primary face-off against Public Advocate Mark Green and former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. The race was praised widely for the positive tone maintained by all. But when Finkelstein hit the airwaves the day after Schumer’s primary victory with an ad blasting Schumer for being “too liberal, too long,” Morris was ready that same day with his retort: “Al D’Amato — too many lies, too long,” ran the refrain of Schumer’s own first-day ad.
From then on, it was negative on both sides. But tellingly, after two weeks, Finkelstein felt compelled to abandon the “liberal” attack theme and replace it with what became a sustained mantra against Schumer: a virtual AWOL from House votes during the year Schumer absorbed with preparing for the Senate race.
“We’re not just nice, little Democrats,” said Morris unapologetically when asked on the local cable news station, New York 1 about his quick switch in approach after the primary. “Al D’Amato and Arthur Finkelstein have been doing this to Democrats for 20 years, and we were not going to let them do that to us. We were going to give them a taste of their own medicine.”
Finkelstein, well known for his allergy to reporters, was nowhere to be seen in public on election night, and attempts to reach him via his office were unsuccessful. But the loss suffered by his New York patron was compounded by the loss of his other high-profile client this year: Carolina Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth. These losses come on the heels of a 1996 cycle in which Finkelstein lost five out of the six Senate campaigns he managed. (He did, however, win the campaign he managed for Benjamin Netanyahu that year in Israel.)
Will Finkelstein’s failures signal the downfall of his slash-and-burn strategy?
“I think he’s lost his cachet,” said Fred Siegal, a history professor and political analyst at Cooper Union College. “But the negative attack ads work. Schumer won with them.”
What has changed, said Siegal is that “it’s hard to make attack ads against ‘liberals’ work in an era in which aggressive liberalism has been clipped back.”