SPRINGFIELD -- “Lezzy Commie Jew.” That’s what one constituent called state Rep. Kelly Cassidy as a result of her support for gun-control bills.

SPRINGFIELD -- “Lezzy Commie Jew.”

That’s what one constituent called state Rep. Kelly Cassidy as a result of her support for gun-control bills.

But the openly gay Chicago Democrat said she wasn’t upset – she calls it one of her favorite insults.

“If anything, it made me more convinced of my position,” Cassidy said. “I’m happy to have a reasonable conversation with someone about issues and even can be sometimes compelled to re-think a position. But if you’re going to go straight to the lowest common denominator, then you don’t have solid policy background for your conversation.”

Negative rhetoric is a mainstay in politics, especially on the campaign trail. And while voters say they hate negative ads, they still respond to them, said James Nowlan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

Nowlan pointed to the 2006 gubernatorial election between Rod Blagojevich and Judy Baar Topinka as an example of the power of negative rhetoric.

“I think it was 23,000 TV commercials that destroyed her persona and caused someone who even then was under a cloud of investigation to win re-election as governor,” Nowlan said. “So, we didn’t like the ads, but they apparently struck the voters in such a way that enough voters respond to them to cause Blagojevich to win.”

Nowlan said consultants sometimes warn that negative ads can result in blowback against the candidate using them. But the number of negative ads has risen since, and, in the process, voter confidence in elected officials has dropped, he said.

“Part of the electorate is willing to believe anything that is said about a candidate,” he said.

Only way to win?

Some of the races decided in Tuesday’s Illinois primary election featured a lot of negative advertising. One television ad slammed state Sen. Sam McCann, R-Carlinville, for taking a government paycheck while owing taxes.

McCann had previously said that his business, McCann Construction, had been involved in a mix-up and that he would pay off what his business owes. If the tax issue was a factor against McCann in the election, it didn’t have much of an effect, as McCann easily defeated Gray Noll for the Republican nomination in the 50th Senate District.

McCann said he tried to be positive.

“It’s a bad reflection on our society, too, that so many people who want to be a leader and put their name on the ballot, but they feel the only way they can get there is by slinging mud at their opponent,” McCann said. “It’s a shame.”

But it’s important to note that a candidate can’t control all aspects of a campaign. Political action committees can make independent expenditures and put out ads without the approval of a candidate.

For instance, mailed fliers that slammed two Democratic candidates in the 96th House District — Springfield Ward 5 Ald. Sam Cahnman and legislative liaison Winston Taylor — were sent out by committees controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan’s choice in the district was Decatur schoolteacher Sue Scherer, who narrowly won the race.

Scherer said her role in those fliers was minimal.

“Anybody that wants to send an ad out can do that. They don’t have to have my permission to do that,” Scherer said.

Negative ads containing false information about her were circulated, too, she said.

Contact sport

Cahnman, who in one mailer was described as having a “disgraceful record,” said negative advertising comes with the territory.

“Anybody who is sensitive shouldn’t get into the arena. You have to have thick skin to be in politics,” he said.

Cahnman, who ran well behind Scherer and Taylor, said he tried to run his campaign positively.

“The voters who know me best, the ones in my ward, were the subject of the same personal attacks when I ran for re-election for alderman last year. But the negative attacks didn’t work because the voters already knew me too well and liked me.

“This time, the voters didn’t have time to get to know me well enough,” Cahnman said.

Civil discourse

By contrast, on the Republican side of the 96th House District, primary winner Dennis Shackelford and his opponent Jared Perry both praised each other on election night.

Cassidy, who took office in May 2011, contrasted the hate mail she has received for her gun-control stance to the tone of her primary race against challenger Paula Basta. While it was a hotly contested primary, Cassidy said, it wasn’t negative at all.

“We had a fairly civil discourse throughout the whole thing,” she said. “There was some whispering, but it was not what you would ordinarily see in a contested primary.”

And then, of course, there are lawmakers who weren’t slammed because no one was there to do it. There were 79 lawmakers who had no primary opposition.

Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, hasn’t had an opponent for his past five terms in office. But Brauer also said negative campaigning is nothing new.

“If you look at the Abraham Lincoln (Presidential Library and Museum), if you go to their editorial and cartoon room …  I think it’s not near as vicious as it was back then,” Brauer said.

“This is something that has always been out there. This is something that people are frustrated with, but at the same time, unfortunately, it has an effect on campaigns, and that’s why it continues today, even back in the time of Lincoln.”

David Thomas can be reached at (217) 782-6292.