HAIL MARY

The (Sloppy) Swift-Boating of Michigan Democrat Gary Peters

With Terri Lynn Land looking like a goner, Republicans are throwing a wild Hail Mary—using 2004 tactics to gain a Senate seat. But this effort won’t work the way it did on John Kerry.

10.13.14 11:41 PM ET

Republican senatorial candidate Terri Lynn Land is losing in Michigan. Badly.

So what were Republicans to do, when they realized that their once highly touted candidate couldn’t take down Rep. Gary Peters at the ballot box? Resurrect a successful 2004 strategy, of course. Lagging in the polls, they’re raising questions about the details of the Democrat’s military service record in an effort to disqualify him for a U.S. Senate seat. That was the playbook the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth used to discredit then-Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, when they found officers who tangentially served alongside the candidate, if at all, and muddied up his record.

In the latest Republican strike, the conservative website Breitbart devoted nearly 4,000 words to a story about Peters’s service in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The site says Peters received a “sharpshooter” designation rather than the “expert” designation he claims; that he worked alongside the Navy’s Seabee construction battalion rather than as a Seabee, as he says; and that he had a mediocre and undistinguished service record.

Breitbart cites two major sources to back up its claims: a commanding officer who served in the Seabees but whom Peters did not report to directly and the Republican National Committee’s “military expert.” But even the Seabees officer says Peters’s service qualifies the candidate to call himself a Seabee. And one of the sources quoted by Breitbart appears to disparage Peters’s overseas service in Bahrain simply because he was not stationed more closely to a war zone.

To rebut the Breitbart story, the Peters campaign provided The Daily Beast with a document signed by a commanding officer showing that the candidate qualified as a Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist on August 5, 1998. Peters qualified as an “expert” on the M16A1 in 1993 and the .38 revolver in 1995. He qualified as “sharpshooter” on the M1911A1-45 ACP handgun in 1994.

Excerpts from Peters’s fitness reports, written by his commanding officers between in 1994 and 2004 and provided by his campaign, describe the senatorial candidate as a “recognized expert” who “perform[s] exceptionally” and has “unlimited potential.”

“LCDR Peters is an outstanding Supply Corps officer…” says one one fitness report from 2004. “LCDR Peters’ attention to detail, along with his working relationship with Air Force officers, has been instrumental in the continuation of a very successful and visible joint service operation while providing first class training.”

Peters joined the Navy Reserve in 1993 and was honorably discharged in 2008, the year he was elected to Congress.

With media outlets in Michigan apparently unwilling to follow Breitbart’s lead, the effort to Swift-Boat Peters does not seem likely to be effective. It’s a last-ditch attempt by a faltering campaign to smear an opponent’s military service record, an issue that hadn’t previously been raised in the campaign. Ten years ago, by contrast, casting Kerry’s service in Vietnam in a negative light was a focal point in the GOP effort to turn the Democratic nominee's biggest strength into a weakness.

The attack comes as national Republican groups are all but giving up on Land’s campaign: The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently canceled the remainder of the advertising it had reserved for her. The RealClearPolitics poll average for the race, meanwhile, has Peters up by 7.8 percentage points.

The Republican National Committee did not respond to a question about whether it supports Breitbart’s line of criticism. The Land campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed a statement about Bahrain to the Republican National Committee's military expert. It was actually made by a former Navy commander.