PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It’s not every day a candidate tries to attack a rival over an FBI investigation and suffers a self-inflicted wound instead.
But that’s what happened to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nellie Gorbea over the course of the day Thursday, after she released a negative TV ad that wasn’t ready for prime time.
“Mistakes happen in life,” Gorbea told reporters. “It’s how you deal with them.”
The new commercial criticizes incumbent Gov. Dan McKee over the FBI probe into the ILO Group deal. As Target 12 first revealed last year, the governor’s office awarded an unusual state contract to ILO, a newly founded consulting firm with ties to one of his close advisers.
“Times have been tough lately for Rhode Island families,” a narrator says in the commercial as reporters discuss the ILO investigation. “McKee’s cronies get insider deals at our expense. Governor McKee has returned us to the pay-to-play politics that holds us back.” The ad then pivots to a positive case for Gorbea’s candidacy.
It marks the first time any of the Democratic candidates for governor have used the airwaves to criticize a rival. Yet the problems with the commercial emerged even before the spot was on the air.
For unknown reasons, the ad showed a news report from one local TV station superimposed with graphics from a different TV station. By the time that initial version was airing Thursday morning, Gorbea’s campaign had already confirmed it had recut the commercial to remove the inaccurate news graphics.
But that was only the preamble to a much bigger backlash against the ad among Democrats and union officials for using an article by conservative commentator Mike Stenhouse to tarnish McKee. Headlined “A Blatant, Corrupt Power Grab by Rhode Island’s Governor,” the National Review article criticized McKee for requiring students to wear masks in school last year.
Alana O’Hare, a spokesperson for McKee, quickly called on Gorbea to pull the ad.
“Nellie Gorbea’s decision to spread right-wing propaganda in a Democratic primary shows how desperate her campaign is,” O’Hare said in a statement. “The MAGA National Review publication, which Nellie uses in her ad, has defended ‘the big lie’ and spread conspiracies about voter fraud.”
Referencing the leading GOP candidate for governor, O’Hare added, “It’s not surprising that the only people running negative ads now in this race are Republican Ashley Kalus and Nellie Gorbea.”
Gorbea’s campaign got pummeled over the commercial on social media for hours before finally releasing a statement in the afternoon announcing that the second version of the ad was also being withdrawn, and would be replaced with a third version presumably excluding Stenhouse. The latest cut had not been released yet as of early Thursday evening.
“We made a mistake in the details of the ad, but the overall story of the ad rings true,” Gorbea said at an event where she received a major labor union endorsement, from the SEIU.
“The story here is not one or two edits that are fixed,” she said. “It is the story overall, which is that the McKee administration is under investigation by the FBI for corruption and for contracting issues, and Rhode Islanders cannot have that pay-to-play politics again in their lifetimes.”
Gorbea acknowledged she herself watched the ad before it went on the air, but said she had only reviewed it “for the overall storyline, which is very much true.”
The ad debacle is a black eye for Gorbea’s longtime Maryland-based media consultant, Sway, which also did the ads for her 2014 and 2018 campaigns for secretary of state. Gorbea’s campaign has paid Sway almost $88,000 since the start of last year.
Asked whether she would hire a new media consultant after what happened on Thursday, Gorbea declined to comment. Her campaign has already been under criticism for using a controversial “red box” to try and tell outside spending groups what TV ads she needs aired.
12 News political analyst Joe Fleming said it remains to be seen if the final version of Gorbea’s ad will resonate with voters, but in the meantime her campaign lost a day to the screwups as time grows short before the Sept. 13 primary.
“Anytime it takes you off message, that’s not good for you,” he said. “She’s obviously going negative and wants to get that message out there about Dan McKee, and this takes away from that because we’re talking about the ad and what was in it more than the message the ad was trying to portray.”
Gorbea and McKee are scheduled to join fellow Democratic candidates Helena Foulkes and Matt Brown on Sept. 6 for a live televised debate on WPRI 12. Last week’s 12 News/Roger Williams University poll showed McKee running three points ahead of Gorbea, but with 21% of voters still undecided.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Amanda Pitts contributed to this report.