Watching Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth's television commercials, Indiana voters might get the idea that he was a sheriff for 25 years. After all, Ellsworth himself says so in both his ads.
Problem is, Ellsworth was only Vanderburgh County sheriff for eight years — he was a deputy for the other 17.
Both Ellsworth and his Republican opponent for U.S. Senate, former Sen. Dan Coats, are trying to portray themselves as Indiana's outsider candidate and their opponent as a Washington insider, even though both have plenty of beltway experience. Ellsworth is in his second term in the House of Representatives, and Coats served in the House and Senate before becoming a Washington lobbyist.
The state Republican Party called Ellsworth's ad misleading and said it's another example of how Ellsworth is trying to gloss over his D.C. experience.
"Clearly this is about Brad Ellsworth wanting to talk about anything other than his time in Congress and the votes he's cast there," said Indiana GOP chairman Murray Clark. "Apparently he is trying to be clever by overstating the amount of time he served as the elected sheriff in hopes that it will fill in the four year gap on his resume that he's spent in Washington."
Ellsworth couldn't have spent 25 consecutive years as county sheriff in Indiana because term limits prohibit sheriffs from serving more than eight years in any 12 year span. Ellsworth was elected as sheriff in 1998 and was elected to Congress in 2006.
In his latest 30-second ad, which started running this week, Ellsworth tells voters about his background as he poses next to a sheriff's department vehicle. He's shown wearing a sheriff's uniform and walking down the street talking to people.
"My 25 years as sheriff was all about putting other peoples' needs first," he says in the ad. "The U.S. Senate needs that same approach. Senators should be helping other people — not just helping themselves like Washington always does."
Ellsworth said in his first 30-second ad: "One thing that 25 years as a sheriff teaches you is zero tolerance for bull. There's too much at stake. But out in Washington it's like they live and breathe the stuff."
Clark scoffed at that ad after it first ran earlier this month.
"One thing that four years in Congress teaches you is how to spin a lot of bull," Clark said.
The Ellsworth campaign said his claims about his time as sheriff refer to his entire time with the department, where Ellsworth spent 24 years and 8 months after joining the department after college. Campaign spokeswoman Liz Farrar said using the term "sheriff's department" instead of "sheriff" in the ad would have been too vague and wouldn't have reflected his leadership role.
The two ads have run in a total of 66 percent of the state, primarily in markets outside of the Evansville, Terre Haute and Louisville, Ky., markets where Ellsworth is better known, Farrar said. She said she didn't know how much the campaign had spent on the ads.
Whether anyone cares about the details of Ellsworth's ads and their accuracy is another question.
"It's a matter of semantics, but most people aren't going to pay attention to it," said Brian Vargus, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. "Whether he was sheriff or sheriff's deputy doesn't really matter."
In a longer spot, Ellsworth would be able to make the distinction between his time as sheriff and his time at the department, said Bob Schmuhl, a political analyst and University of Notre Dame professor.
"With political advertising, there is something akin to poetic license and this is an example of that," Schmuhl said.
Farrar said the ads aren't intended to be misleading. Ellsworth's time at the Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office shaped who he his and taught him about solving problems and resolving conflicts, Farrar said.
"Whether as a deputy or as a sheriff, those values and priorities are the same," she said. "That body of experience and those values as a result are what makes him the best candidate."
Coats and Ellsworth are vying for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Evan Bayh.
Coats hasn't run television ads yet in the general election. But he earned some name recognition from the primary race and some older voters remember his last stint as senator. Coats was a senator for 10 years before deciding in 1998 against seeking re-election, avoiding a race with then-Gov. Bayh.
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