The National Republican Campaign Committee released an ad on Friday that observers in Nebraska probably expected -- and that people familiar with the history of controversial political advertising probably thought looked familiar.
Titled "Nikko," the spot uses images of convicted murderer Nikko Jenkins to criticize state Sen. Brad Ashford (D) (who is challenging Republican Rep. Lee Terry) for his support of sentencing reforms. It's a powerful spot.
And it's evocative -- almost certainly intentionally -- of the ads run by George H. W. Bush in 1988 against Democrat Michael Dukakis.
The "Willie Horton" ads quickly became infamous for what critics suggested was an intentional appeal to racial fears -- and for the ad's effectiveness at raising questions about Dukakis. (Famed Republican strategist Lee Atwater said he hoped voters would "wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis' running mate.")
At first blush, the cases are as similar as the ads. Convicted felons released from prison who go on to commit horrible crimes. In Horton's case, he received a weekend furlough. In Jenkins', he was the beneficiary of Nebraska's "good time" policy.
The state's "good time" law awards prisoners two days served for each day spent behind bars with good behavior, an effort to reduce prison sentences and ease the state's prison overcrowding. Jenkins was sentenced to 21 years for two carjackings he committed as a teenager, but was released after serving ten-and-a-half. After his release, he went on a crime spree, killing four people. Jenkins' early release was the subject of debate even before it became central to this year's election. In September 2013, the Omaha World-Herald explained the various infractions -- some severe, like multiple fights and assaults on correctional officers -- that seem to indicate Jenkins should have been awarded fewer days off for good time. In total, he had about 17-and-a-half months added back onto his sentence.
Ashford has defended the law. In July of this year he criticized the governor, Dave Heineman (R), for suggesting changes to the policy in the wake of incidents like the Jenkins murders, as the Sioux City Journal reported. (The two politicians had worked together on a 2011 expansion to expand good time access.) Heineman offered a preview of the new NRCC ad last week when he sent a letter to news outlets criticizing Ashford, who chairs the judiciary committee, for not being willing to revisit the policy. "That's a mistake," he wrote.
On Thursday, Ashford's campaign Twitter account tweeted an excerpt from his endorsement by the World-Herald.
It didn't include the first part of that line, from the editorial: "While this newspaper has disagreed with Ashford over the state giving good time to inmates automatically, few lawmakers have done more to enhance public safety."
The Willie Horton ad is often considered a key factor in the 1988 presidential race. There hasn't been polling in Nebraska's 2nd congressional district to allow us to say with certainty how the NRCC ad might shift the terrain. That it's a strong ad on a vulnerable issue is probably as good an answer as we'll get.