One House Republican Tried To Pull a “Willie Horton.” He Lost.

Bill Scher

Two House Republican incumbents lost last week. One was Rep. Lee Terry, who represents Omaha, Nebraska.

Terry couldn’t escape his glib reaction to last year’s government shutdown. When asked if he should keep getting paid while the government was closed, he said “Dang straight. I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used his own words in attack ads.

Seeing the race slip away in October, Terry’s friends of the National Republican Congressional Committee sought to tear down his Democratic opponent Brad Ashford, by blaming him for a killing spree waged by Nikko Jenkins in the ad “Nikko”.

If you’ve seen the 1988 “Willie Horton” ad, “Nikko” will look very familiar.

The Willie Horton ad become the symbol of modern race-baiting politics when the Bush presidential campaign — behind double-digits against Gov. Michael Dukakis — pushed the story of the Massachusetts first-degree murderer who was convicted of a rape and attempted murder while on a weekend furlough from prison.

At the time, furlough programs for prisoners with life sentences were in place in most states — the Massachusetts program began before Dukakis was governor — because even those prisoners could eventually have their sentences reduced, and studies showed the furlough program helped most better re-integrate into society. But such statistical defenses couldn’t adequately justify a case when a furloughed prisoner committed a vicious crime.

Dukakis soon ended the program after the Horton indicient, but in the words of one Bush campaign official, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

After Bush himself raised the matter in speeches, sparking news coverage, a nominally independent group with ties to the Bush campaign aired the “Willie Horton ad” in which a narrator almost too calmly recounts the basic facts of the case while sinister images of Horton are shown. While the ad was considered to be effective in helping to obliterate Dukakis’ lead, it also has be excoriated for trafficking in racial stereotyping.

Dukakis ended the long-standing furlough program after that, but in the words of one Bush campaign official, recounted in the Roger Simon book “Road Show” “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

After Bush himself raised the matter in speeches, sparking news coverage that whetted the electorate’s appetite, a nominally independent group with ties to the Bush campaign aired the infamous ad in which a narrator almost too calmly recounts the basic facts of the case while sinister images of the African-American Horton are shown.

While the ad was considered to be effective in helping obliterate Dukakis’ lead, it was also excoriated for perpetuating racial stereotypes.

That was 1988. This is 2014. Racial stereotypes may not have been eradicated. But as America has become more racially diverse, the old Republican “Southern Strategy” of stoking racial animosity has lost its effectiveness.

In the 2014 version of “Willie Horton” the tattoo-faced African-American Nikko Jenkins is seen delivering an angry outburst while being led to prison. The narrator says he committed four murders following an early release, after serving half of an armed robbery sentence because of Nebraska’s “Good Time” law — a law that reduces sentences automatically based on good behavior. Of course, the ad asserted that Ashford supports the Good Time law.

As Nebraska’s second congressional district is 82% white and only 10% black, Terry may have thought the ad would rally the white majority to his side. Instead, Terry sparked a backlash that contributed to his demise.

An Omaha-World Herald editorial sharply criticized the ad for leaving out key facts. For one thing, aspects of the existing “Good Time law” could have kept Jenkins in prison, but prison officials failed to employ them. For another, Ashford only resisted ending the program as a stand-alone measure on tactical grounds, fearing it will doom a push for broader prison reform. Furthermore, it was Republicans who control state government who have kept the law on the books for years. Ashford used the editorial to anchor a response ad:

Ashford was also helped by former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who called the NRCC ad “racist” on MSNBC, video of which the Ashford campaign promoted on its YouTube channel.

The counterattack worked. In an election where nationally Republican turnout was up and Democratic turnout was down, the Democrat Ashford beat the Republican incumbent by 3 points.

The days of “Willie Horton” politics are over.

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