MODESTO -- UPDATE: 8:30 a.m.: The closely watched San Joaquin Valley congressional race between Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and challenger Jose Hernandez has veered again into court, with the GOP incumbent suing Democratic operatives for defamation.
Angry over what he calls a misleading political ad, Denham late Thursday filed suit against Sacramento television stations and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The unusual campaign-season libel suit came after Democrats declined to pull the ad.
Congressman Denham vigorously supports First Amendment rights
that may well include vehement, caustic and unpleasantly sharp attacks, Turlock-based attorney Michael Warda wrote in the nine-page lawsuit, before adding that the Democratic campaign committee has lied about him maliciously.
Democrats stood by the ad.
Legally, Denham has some high hurdles in pursuing the defamation case, and its not often that an incumbent politician will sue over a campaign ad. As an elected official, the quintessential public figure, Denham must demonstrate that the statements about him were made by individuals who knew they were false or who acted with reckless disregard for whether they were false or not. Heated and even misleading campaign speech, in particular, is often given wide leeway by judges.
Politically, though, the lawsuit electronically filed in federal court in Sacramento at 7:49 p.m. Thursday night sends a definite signal about Denhams convictions.
Rep. Jeff Denham says he is going to court to get a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ad attacking his record on veterans off the air.
The Turlock Republican said Thursday that he would file a libel lawsuit against the national Democratic organization. His campaign consultant Dave Gilliard called the television ad's claims that the congressman voted to cut military pay and increase congressional salaries "false and defamatory."
Gilliard said he expected the lawsuit to be filed electronically late Thursday night or this morning in federal court in Sacramento.
The Denham campaign also has sent six letters to Sacramento TV stations demanding the ads immediately be taken off the air.
Denham is in a heated campaign against Democrat Jose Hernandez in the newly redrawn 10th Congressional District, which includes all of Stanislaus County plus Escalon, Ripon, Manteca and Tracy in San Joaquin County.
The DCCC is the official campaign arm of the Democrats in the House. It is not affiliated with the Hernandez campaign.
The controversial ad revolves around Denham's votes during House discussions of two bills related to a potential government shutdown and military funding in the spring of 2011.
According to a transcript of the ad on the DCCC's Web site: "Jeff Denham voted against help to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or contemplating suicide. And when the government was on the brink of shutting down, Denham made sure he received his paycheck, but didn't do the same for soldiers. Denham even voted against helping homeless veterans."
Denham, an Air Force veteran, adamantly said that's not true Thursday.
"I voted yes along with most of the DCCC's leadership," he said of the votes on April 1 and April 7, 2011.
What he voted against, Gilliard said, were two procedural motions introduced during debate about the bills.
"This is a very black-and-white scenario done with malicious intent to mislead voters," said Denham, who described the attack ads as "personal" because of his own service and support for the military.
The DCCC defended the spot in a statement: "It comes as no surprise that Congressman Denham doesn't want voters to know he voted to protect his own pay but not pay for the troops, but he can't run away from his record no matter how hard he tries."
Amber Moon, western regional press secretary for the DCCC, said the group has spent $2,207,935 in support of Hernandez in the 10th District campaign. Various Republican-supported political action committees have committed a similar amount on behalf of Denham.
"I get it, I'm a politician. For better or worse, you can say anything about me and I've got to grin and bear it," Denham said. "The statute does not apply to DCCC. It does not apply to the people behind it because they know it's malicious intent."
A spokesman for the Hernandez campaign declined to comment Thursday.