The Alaska Senate race got really interesting in the past few days. As the Washington Examiner reported:
After receiving an blistering letter from the lawyer of the family of a sexual assault victim, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich is taking down a controversial TV ad criticizing his Republican opponent.
It is the first ad run by a Senate campaign to be pulled this cycle.
Begich’s campaign released a TV spot last week that faulted Republican challenger Dan Sullivan, the state’s former attorney general, for the early release of a sex offender who has been charged with the death of an elderly couple and the sexual assault of a two-year-old.
Sullivan protested that the ad was an abomination, cynically using a terrible tragedy for political gain. What’s more, Sullivan wasn’t even attorney general at the time. Begich refused to pull the ad, but the family of the victims went public with its letter. (“You are tearing this family apart to the point that your ad was so shocking to them they now want to permanently leave the state as quickly as possible. Again, to be perfectly clear, it was your ad that shocked them.”) It was only then that Begich sheepishly pulled the ad.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee went ballistic, firing off an e-mail barrage that read in part: “It seems impossible to justify the actions of Mark Begich and his campaign team from either a political or moral perspective. Did Senator Begich not reach out to the victims’ family before cutting the ad? Did Begich not consider the implications that the ad could have on the criminal case making its way through the justice system? Why did Begich ignore the pleas of the victims of this horrific crime and continue to insist his ad be run?” The e-mail concluded, “Mark Begich’s ad is certainly appalling, but his indifference to the victims of this horror raises questions about his basic values.”
The media are analogizing this to the Willie Horton ad run in 1988 by a third-party group in the presidential election blaming Gov. Michael Dukakis for Horton’s rapes while on a state furlough program. But that ad, albeit inflammatory, was essentially true — Dukakis was governor while the furlough program was in effect — and worked to help paint him as a weak-on-crime liberal. In this case, the better analogy is the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial race in which Republican Jerry W. Kilgore invoked Hitler in criticizing eventual winner Tim Kaine (now Sen. Kaine) for his position against the death penalty.
The Post at the time reported, “Adolf Hitler became a central character in the Virginia governor’s race this week as Republican Jerry W. Kilgore’s campaign used the Nazi leader’s name in an emotional ad on the death penalty, prompting an outcry Friday from some Jewish leaders. One day after the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, the Anti-Defamation League condemned Kilgore for using Holocaust imagery to advance his political agenda. Kilgore’s ad accuses Democrat Timothy M. Kaine of not supporting the death penalty, even for Hitler, who died in his Berlin bunker in 1945.” The ad was widely condemned and seen as a desperation move by a candidate with no relevant agenda to offer voters.
Begich and the NRSC are doing everything they can to turn this into a Jerry Kilgore misstep. So far they are getting some traction. A local Alaska news station reported: “University of Alaska Anchorage political science professor Forrest Nabors says Begich’s campaign took a risk approving the ad. ‘You want to take that big risk if you think you are down and you need that home run you are going to go for it, and that’s what this advertisement told me about the Begich campaign — that they need to fight very hard and take significant risks in order to win in November,’ Nabors said.”
Polling has been scant in Alaska, so it may take some time before we can tell the impact of the episode. However, two things are already clear. First, Begich wants President Obama to stay far away and is increasingly, if belatedly, vocal about his opposition to measures such as unilateral immigration changes. His record in supporting the major Obama initiatives is a weight around his ankle. Hence the need to change the topic and attack his opponent, however crudely. (Watch for the same gambit in other red states.) Second, to the degree this becomes a nationalized election and referendum on Obama, the election terrain favors the GOP. If this stunt doesn’t work, expect Begich to play every other card, including promises to bring home the pork for the state. Prepare for a whole bunch more mudslinging from Begich; it might be the only thing that can save his seat.