The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mark Begich pulls a campaign ad suggesting his opponent was indirectly responsible for a sex crime

Senator Mark Begich, right. (Photo by Richard J. Murphy for The Washington Post)

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) pulled ads from Alaska television stations on Tuesday, following demands from a crime victim's family that the ads were both insensitive and threatened prosecution of a criminal suspect.

The case at the center of the state's fiercely contested Senate race is ugly: two grandparents murdered and their two-year-old granddaughter sexually assaulted. The 25-year-old man arrested for the crimes, Jerry Active, should by all accounts not have been free. In 2009, Active was convicted, among other things, of attempted sexual assault of a minor. Given a previous 2007 felony conviction, Active should not have been eligible for probation -- but a database error admitted by the state meant that he was sent free. Last May, he allegedly committed the murders and assault.

The attorney general at the time of the plea bargain that freed Active in 2010 was Republican Dan Sullivan, Begich's opponent in the Senate race. A now-deleted page from Begich's campaign Web site (visible through Google's cache) shows Sullivan's name on the plea deal signed in March of 2010 -- though the document is signed by an assistant district attorney, Gustaf Olson.

Begich's page crops the image above the signature from Olson.

When Begich began running an ad last week criticizing Sullivan for letting Active back on the streets to allegedly commit the new assault, Sullivan quickly responded with an ad of his own, declaring that Begich was "lying" about his role.

When the ads began to run, Anchorage attorney Bryon Collins quickly asked both campaigns to remove them from the airwaves. His argument, outlined in a letter to Begich's campaign that was obtained by The Daily Caller, was two-fold. "The family [of the murder victims] directly and without question has told your campaign they want no part of this," Collins wrote, later adding a quote from his client: "the reason why I want the ad down is because we do not want it to interfere with the trial."

Over the weekend, Sullivan's campaign agreed to pull its response ad, writing in a statement that it was "pleased we could play a role along with the victims' attorney to end it." Pressure on Begich to do the same mounted on Tuesday, after Collins' letter to Begich's campaign -- dated Monday -- became public. It set a noon deadline for Begich to respond, criticizing the senator's inaction in harsh terms. "You[r] campaign is playing pure politics at the expense of my clients," it continued, "and frankly has done only what is in the best interests of 'Mark Begich' rather than protecting the victims of the most serious crime in Alaska history."

Begich pulled the spot on Tuesday -- as well, it seems, as the campaign's page detailing his charges against Sullivan. (Interestingly, an Anchorage Daily News editorial criticizing the state's error, but not mentioning Sullivan, also appears to have been removed from the paper's Web site. It can be read here.)

The political site Real Clear Politics drew an analogy that has become common: The pulled spot was Begich's "Willie Horton" play -- a reference to the 1988 ad that helped sink Democrat Michael Dukakis' presidential hopes. Sullivan appears to have escaped a similar albatross for two reasons. First, because his culpability for the decision to set Active free was tenuous to non-existent from the outset. And second, thanks to unrelenting pressure from the already-victimized family.