Last updated: February 19. 2013 4:12PM - 294 Views

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The two women belong to opposite parties but found themselves sitting in the same proverbial election boat: Harrisburg freshman representative Tarah Toohil and 11-term veteran Phyllis Mundy fended off well-funded attacks from first-time challengers Tuesday.

How did they manage to triumph? Possibly as much by good fortune as sound strategy, two experts suggest.

In the case of Toohil, R-Butler Township, political consultant Ed Mitchell said attack ads using old photos of her at a party more than a decade ago may have backfired.

There's a basic principal in political campaigns that negative attacks have to be credible, and that they can't be over the top, and I think that principle perhaps was stretched with the House Democratic Committee campaign against Toohil, Mitchell said.

Toohil's opponent, longtime Butler Township Supervisor Ransom Young, said he was not responsible for the attack campaign and joined in widespread criticism of the party ads and subsequent ads about a recent trip to Israel funded through a Jewish lobbying group and Toohil's own campaign money.

Toohil's gender increased odds the attack ads would provoke sympathy, Mitchell said.

They shouldn't be treated differently, but the fact is voters, especially women, react differently to attacks on women, Mitchell said. You have to be very careful and balanced; you have to root the attacks in documented, substantiated information.

Mundy's Republican challenger, Aaron Kaufer, met that benchmark, Mitchell said, providing documentation in his attacks on the Kingston Democrat's votes concerning increases in state congressional pay and pension benefits.

The attacks seem to have been effective, netting the unknown newcomer nearly 44 percent of the vote according to unofficial results – but Mundy survived partly because she is well known and well liked, and partly because she was on the coattails of Democratic votes for the presidential and U.S. Senate races, Mitchell suspects.

Other factors in play

King's College political science professor David Sosar agreed the attack ads on Toohil probably backfired, but added that she had a big advantage because she projects a very likable and positive attitude, a charisma that attack ads alone likely couldn't overcome.

Young's own popularity as Butler Township supervisor may have worked against him, Sosar said. People may have been content leaving Toohil in office and they may have wanted to keep him in his office rather than sending him to Harrisburg.

Both Sosar and Mitchell said they felt Toohil did not do a very effective job countering the attack ads. She was a little evasive on the Israel trip, Sosar said. She dealt with it; she didn't deal with it strongly.

But both agreed Young failed to effectively pitch himself as a capable replacement. When you try to take down an incumbent there are two steps: First, discredit the incumbent and then establish yourself as a credible alternative.

Toohil did not return a call for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Stuck to her gameplan

Mundy said she had stuck to her traditional campaign strategy, touting her work for constituents and service to the area, and explaining what she would like to get done if re-elected. When Kaufer's attacks grew tougher and more ubiquitous, primarily through mail, she responded directly. We had to fight back on the spin he was putting on my record.

Mundy said she was not concerned that she got only 56 percent of the vote, and Sosar agreed it did not suggest any real vulnerability. But Mitchell felt otherwise.

I wouldn't take re-election for granted if I only got 56 percent of the vote against a guy who didn't have any political experience, Mitchell said. The attacks weren't potent enough to defeat her good will. Her solid record and performance as a legislator prove to be more helpful than the attacks were hurtful to her. But when you see a guy with as little as he had go up against her and get as far as he got, I'd look at that with caution.

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