News3 News Now Investigators


Looking deeper at negative campaign ads: Tony Vargas

We're working to provide more context on negative ads
Posted at 7:05 PM, Oct 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-28 20:12:42-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — You’re undoubtedly familiar with the ominous political messages.

Negative ads in the congressional race between Republican incumbent Don Bacon and Democratic Party challenger Tony Vargas began the first week of September and haven’t gone away.

Ads on both sides have featured dodgeball. In Vargas’ own ad supporting himself, he proclaims he can “take the hits.”

But the National Republican Congressional Committee released an ad turning that theme on its head. A Vargas imitator hurls a ball — rather than taking the hits himself. He eventually nails a man in the groin while a narrator proclaims that Vargas wanted to raise taxes and double his salary.

Most have come from third-party groups with a disclaimer that no candidates authorized the ad. But Bacon has authorized at least two negative ads, one funded entirely by his campaign, and another by both his campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Groups buying ads against Vargas include NRCC, Congressional Leadership Fund and Defending Main Steet. And on the left, spenders include House Majority PAC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The often theatrical and vague messages in negative campaign ads don’t aim to keep voters as informed as possible.

3 News Now reporters Jon Kipper and Aaron Hegarty set out to provide more context to the claims in negative ads you might have seen over and over again. Some ads we reviewed have been replaced for newer ones, but often the topics have remained the same.

Tonight, we start with attack ads on Tony Vargas. Thursday, we'll have the same for attack ads on Don Bacon. Update: the link has been added below.

Learn more: Looking deeper at negative campaign ads on Don Bacon

Tony Vargas on crime and cops

Negative ads, especially those more recently in the campaign cycle, have attacked Vargas for being soft on crime.

Attacks say Vargas voted “to release violent prisoners” and “against tougher penalties for drug dealers.” They also point to Vargas’ comments during the unrest of the 2020 George Floyd protests.

Vargas responded to the ads with his own, one saying the attacks seem "desperate."

"I care about our public safety," Vargas told 3 News Now. "And that's evidenced by every vote that I've taken on the Appropriations Committee to fund it."

Did Vargas vote to release violent prisoners?

The claim is made in “Tony Vargas Soft on Crime,” funded by Don Bacon for Congress and the NRCC, and other ads.

We checked the fine-print sourcing, including “LB 1005 8/13/2020.” But we ran into trouble. That bill would’ve switched Nebraska’s statewide and congressional elections to nonpartisan primaries and had no activity around that date.

Luckily, other ads making a similar claim sourced their claim with a bill one number off: LB 1004. That made more sense, but it also wasn’t a vote to “release violent prisoners.”

But that bill would have made offenders eligible for parole two years before they are required to be discharged. They're now eligible when half of the minimum term is up.

The parole board must approve a release into the community. The released prisoner must serve the rest of their sentence under the supervision of a parole officer.

"Nothing is automatic," Vargas told 3 News Now. "And it would still be done by the parole board, which also is appointed by the governor."

It passed with bipartisan support, 29-11, but was vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts. Vargas and all other senators who voted supported an amendment that made the bill only apply to new sentences.

Releasing Prisoners.png

Did Vargas ‘join the rioters’?

The claim is made in “Tony Vargas Soft on Crime,” funded by Don Bacon for Congress and the NRCC, and a similar message is made in several ads.

It stems from a May 31, 2020, Facebook post by Vargas. In the post, Vargas said he “went to join a group of peaceful protesters” but was “met with flash grenades and pepper bullets.” He said he was hit multiple times.

In the post, Vargas differentiated the “peaceful” group he was with from “violent protesters” that he said committed “unwarranted violence from others in our downtown community and to police law enforcement.”

"I called out violence against law enforcement and I did it publicly," Vargas told 3 News Now. "I also called out when, you know, people weren't able to peacefully protest. I think both those things are possible."

Tony Connor of the Omaha Police Officers Association said Vargas’ comments were “false, irresponsible and dangerous.”

“Progress is made harder when dishonest politicians are more interested in self-promotion than promotion of truths,” Connor said. “Law enforcement has only responded with force to … vandalism and violence.”

Did Vargas support lighter sentences for drug dealers?

The claim is made in “Tony Vargas Won’t Keep Us Safe,” paid for by Defending Main Street, and similar claims are brought up in other ads.

Vargas said he hadn't seen this attack.

"I don't think I've seen an ad in the last month and a half," he said. "I hear them through my team."

He said he tells his daughter "this is what they have to do" when she asks about them.

That ad simply sources “Nebraska Legislature, 1/17/17,” without providing a bill number. Luckily, another ad, NRCC’s “The Call,” is more specific in its similar claim, citing “LB 447 3/8/17” and an Omaha World-Herald article.

That bill, which Vargas voted for, would have removed mandatory minimums for Nebraska’s Class IC and Class ID felonies. Class IC felonies include convictions involving 28-140 grams of certain drugs. Class ID felonies include convictions for 10-28 grams of the same drugs.

Class IC and ID felonies did and still do carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five and three years imprisonment, respectively. The range of sentencing would have remained the same, but the minimum would’ve become not mandatory.

The bill failed to progress after advancing the first round of voting 25-22.

Drug Dealers.png

Vargas on taxing and spending

One of the first ads from the Congressional Leadership Fund that began circling was "Favorite." It said Vargas wants to increase taxes and government spending "just like (Nancy) Pelosi." And an ad from Bacon, "Taxin' Tony" says Vargas aimed to make Nebraska the fifth-highest income tax state in the country.

But the anti-Bacon ad “Not Working,” from the House Majority PAC and an ad from Vargas himself, claim Vargas “voted for two of the largest property tax cuts in Nebraska history” and said he supports cutting taxes for the middle class.

Both cite a publication from a libertarian policy group – Americans for Prosperity – from November 2021.

Vargas’ commercial puts the words “Taxpayer Defender” on screen. Indeed, the publication lists Vargas in its second-tier “Taxpayer Defender” category, ranking Nebraska legislators on tax policy.

Vargas and Mike McDonnel are the highest-rated Democrats on the list. Vargas was just one point away from not being able use the categorization. He snuck into the second tier with a score of 80%.

That changed in their 2022 report, though, released Wednesday. Vargas slipped three points to a score of 77%, into the "taxpayer neutral" category, the second-highest rated Democrat.

Though not in the fine-print sourcing of either campaign ad, the Vargas campaign pointed to two bills he supported as major tax cuts.

They noted Vargas supported what Gov. Pete Ricketts called “the biggest tax relief package in state history,” which passed unanimously.

They also pointed us to a bill from 2020 labeled as a "grand compromise" that gave out property tax credits, while also including incentives for Nebraska businesses and funding for a major UNMC project. The next year the legislature cut taxes on social security earners and military veterans.

"I think probably this is the thing that I think frightens my opponent and other people the most," Vargas said, "Look, I voted for four tax bills. I voted for tax relief many different times."

Bacon’s ad on the topic uses an article from the conservative Washington Free Beacon, about a tax bill Vargas introduced.

Vargas’s bill aimed to cut taxes for the middle class, while raising taxes on wealthier Nebraskans.

It would have cut taxes by 1.5% for individuals earning between $30,500 to $50,000, using the standard deduction. Taxes would have stayed the same for individuals making between $50,000 and $112,500. But those earning more would have a one percent raise in taxes, and those earning over $1 million would be subject to even higher taxes. Vargas said it would have lowered taxes for the "overwhelming majority" of Nebraskans.

The bill never made it out of the revenue committee and failed.

"I want to make sure that we're focusing on the middle class," Vargas said, so runs on a tax cut for the middle class. "I want to make sure that we're doing more for for working individuals and working families no matter what."

He also points to his experience in the Nebraska Legislature's Appropriations Committee passing balanced budgets and "a controlled growth of spending."

Vargas also pushed back on claims that he increased property taxes. "The reality is as a member of the school board, I voted to put a bond on the ballot, which the voters overwhelmingly supported for my public schools," he said.

Did Vargas want to double his salary?

The claim – made in several ads on Vargas – refers to a bill Vargas introduced in 2018 that would have sent to Nebraska voters a constitutional amendment to set the salary of state senators at half of Nebraska’s median household income.

Vargas told 3 News Now this claim surprises him the most.

Vargas was the lead introducing senator and five Republicans and three other Democrats were listed as sponsors.

If approved by voters, that means a state senator’s salary would’ve increased from $12,000 to more than $30,000. It would have more than doubled legislative salaries. Nebraska’s median household income from 2016-2020 was $63,015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Vargas said he tells voters who ask that the bill intended to make it so "everyday people like yourself would be able to one day serve."

He argued when introducing the bill that Nebraska's legislative salaries are among the lowest in the country. That remains true.

"I don't make an issue and ever brought it up in the debates," Bacon said of the attack on Vargas for the legislative salary bill. "But I think it's fair for others to want to do so, because, frankly, most Nebraskans oppose it."

Nebraska State Senator Tony Vargas
Nebaska state Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha introduces his measure that would require high schools to allow students to breastfeed and set alternative attendance and coursework standards for those who are pregnant or parenting at an Education Committee hearing in Lincoln, Neb., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Did Vargas support a 'risky investment scheme'?

The claim is made in “Crazy,” paid for by the Congressional Leadership Fund, and was one of the first to hit the airwaves.

It’s based on an amendmentto a bill in 2018 that Vargas voted in favor of, aiming to balance Omaha Public School’s severely underfunded pension.

The amendment would have allowed OPS to issue $300 million in pension obligation bonds without a vote of the people. Supporters, which included State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, a Republican, argued it was “the best worst solution” to fix the troubled teachers’ pension fund and that it was a good first step to stabilize the fund.

Conservative state senators criticized the legislation due to a lack of public vote and feared the investments wouldn’t yield enough to cover the interest rate. The nonpartisan group ‘Government Finance Officers Association’ argues local government should never issue these bonds, saying pension obligation bonds “involve considerable investment risk, making this goal very speculative.”

Is Vargas a 'crazy liberal?'

It's a subjective claim, made especially in an ad called "Crazy."

Vargas pushed back on the characterization in his interview with 3 News Now.

"None of my campaigns have been focused on ... an ideology or just representing one party," he said. "I want to represent everybody."

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