South Florida's most competitive state Senate primary is rapidly becoming its nastiest thanks to shadowy third-party groups with a reputation for stealth attacks.
Heading into Tuesday's primary, voters in state Senate District 31 have been inundated with mailings and robo-calls blasting Democrats Ken Gottlieb, Eleanor Sobel and Tim Ryan -- three former state representatives locked in a tight contest to replace term-limited Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller.
''Sobel lied to our kids,'' declares one missive. ''There's something strange about Tim Ryan's politics,'' chimes in a second, and a third cautions: ``You don't have to dig deep to find out about the dirty deals of Ken Gottlieb.''
The attacks -- which sometimes stretch the truth -- don't come directly from the candidates, who have denounced the fliers.
Instead, they have been sent by two electioneering communication organizations, or ECOs, third-party groups that can sidestep contribution limits and have played a major role in recent elections -- like in state Sen. Alex Villalobos' bitter 2006 reelection bid where ECOs mailed fliers pairing the Miami Republican with serial killer Ted Bundy and sent mailings depicting his challenger with rattlesnakes.
''We call it stealth campaigning,'' said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. ``It allows the candidate to be separate from it and let the damage be done by someone else.''
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