A new TV ad in Louisiana's brutal race for governor warns voters of "dangerous thugs" being released from prison as part of criminal justice reform. It's a political acid test of an issue that had recently become a rare source of bipartisan comity — and tellingly, Republican nominee David Vitter has not made it easy to view on his Web site or YouTube account.
The ad, captured by Politico, warns that Democratic nominee John Bel Edwards would join President Obama in a plot to put hoodlums on the street. "Obama dangerously called for releasing 6,000 criminals from jail," intones a narrator, as images of criminals drinking, cutting cocaine, and generally menacing people are shown. Edwards, viewers are told, said at historically black Southern University that he favored "5,500 dangerous thugs — drug dealers — [being] released back into our neighborhoods."
As the Times-Picayune's Kevin Litten reported, Vitter was making scandals out of proposals that had bipartisan support. Of the 6,000 criminals scheduled for released by the Obama administration, roughly 2,000 are foreigners who will be processed for deportation. The plans to reduce Louisiana's prison population are tied to reforms — supported by outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) — that would shift drug offenders from prison to rehab.
"My statement about inmates in the speech referenced was about reducing the prison population through long-term solutions without harming public safety," a baffled Edwards told Litten.
The Vitter ad is not the only Republican challenge to the criminal justice reform consensus. Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) opposed a reform bill that was backed by some of his closest Senate allies, explaining that "the growing crime wave" in America made the timing questionable.
"When police officers across this country are under assault right now, are being vilified right now, and when we’re seeing violent crime spiking in our cities across the country,” Cruz said. “I think it would be a serious mistake for the Senate to pass legislation providing for 7,082 convicted criminals potentially to be released early, a substantial portion of those criminals will be illegal aliens with criminal convictions.”
Some Republicans who've worked to reform drug laws have joined in the criticism of "anti-cop" rhetoric. Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), who's passionately campaigned for treating drug addiction as a disease and not a crime, told CBS News's John Dickerson that President Obama "doesn't back up police officers." The evidence: His support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which was "calling for the murder of police officers."
This is not the first time Vitter has found a racially-charged angle in an issue that had been building bipartisan support. In 2010, during his successful Senate reelection bid, Vitter ran a spot that accused opponent Charlie Melancon of voting "to make it easier to get taxpayer-funded benefits for illegals" and "against allowing police to arrest illegals."
He won that election by 19 points, and led this year's gubernatorial race until very recently. Vitter's weak showing in Saturday's primary, in which he barely made the runoff against a stronger-than-expected Edwards, has stoked new Republican worries about his ability to survive scandal and high unfavorable ratings, even in a red state that's growing redder.