In the latest entry in the GOP minority outreach files, national Republicans have gone up with a lurid, racially charged ad in a House race that is being widely described as the “Willie Horton” spot of 2014.
Roll Call describes the ad as a “Hail Mary” for the incumbent, GOP Rep. Lee Terry, reporting that both Democrats and Republicans privately agree that Terry is down in the polls. Here’s the ad:
The DCCC today issued a statement calling on the NRCC to take the ad down, claiming that this “repellent, race-baiting ad has no place in America.” Salon pronounced it “the worst race-baiting campaign ad since Willie Horton.”
But even right-leaning news outlets are surprised at the ad’s tone. The Washington Examiner described it as “risky,” noting that it could invite comparisons to the “Willie Horton” ad against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, and open up the national GOP to the same sort of “similar accusations of playing with subtle racism” that greeted the Willie Horton spot.
Dara Lind has a good explainer on the backstory here. The “Willie Horton” ad came in the late 1980s, at a time when high crime, demographic tensions and other cultural factors made soft-on-crime attacks on Democrats potent. But as Lind notes: “A quarter of a century later, the politics of criminal justice are very different — Republicans and Democrats are working together in state legislatures around the country on criminal justice reform.”
Indeed, one GOP strategist made an interesting point to me about it: This is exactly the opposite of how Republicans should be talking about crime right now.
“Any idiot can use too much hot sauce — this is too much hot sauce,” GOP strategist Rick Wilson, who has been known to craft some very negative ads in his time, told me. “This is not as consequential in the long term as all that, but it’s a data point that people are going to throw back in your face to say, ‘You guys are using the scariest possible images in these ads.'”
“If we were smarter, we would be talking to African Americans about reforming the criminal justice system,” Wilson continued. “But I don’t think this ad is a step in that direction. African Americans actually do respond to messages about crime. This is a lost opportunity.”
After all, this comes at a time when some Republicans are looking to broaden the party’s appeal to minorities by easing the party in the direction of sentencing reform. Senator Rand Paul told Politico this week that Republicans should be pushing criminal-justice reform, among other issues, as a way to win more African American votes in the 2016 presidential election. Meanwhile, the response to the Michael Brown shooting had temporarily stoked optimism that we might see a bipartisan alliance come together against police over-militarization, and some Republicans (again, Senator Paul) had even discussed the problem in the context of race.
Perhaps the politest way to describe this new NRCC ad is to call it a cultural and political anachronism.