In an era of prominent Republican support for reducing incarceration attack ads can spark backlash, according to The Marshall Project. Last month, the Republican National Committee ran an ad explaining that when Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine was a defense lawyer, he represented men who received the death penalty. As Virginia governor, the ad goes on, Kaine commuted a death sentence. Kaine “consistently protected the worst kinds of people,” the ad says.
The condemnation was swift. Kevin Burke, a former president of the American Judges Association, defended Kaine as a modern-day Atticus Finch and pointed out that the ranks of former death penalty defense lawyers include none other than U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Amid the criticism, the RNC deleted its own tweet, which had characterized the ad as “Willie-Horton style.”
Racial politics have shifted over time, too. The Horton ad was widely perceived as playing on racial anxieties, a perception that the new ads seem keen to avoid. “Most of these spots flinch when it comes to going for a pure fear appeal, à la Willie Horton,” says Robert Mann, a journalism professor at Louisiana State University who wrote a book on the 1964 “Daisy” ad. Mann noted that an attack ad about Democratic Connecticut state Sen. Mae Flexer — which criticizes her vote to repeal the state’s death penalty and support an early release program — “was careful to show several non-minority faces.” The attack on Kaine also features primarily white criminals.
This year, many ads in the Horton tradition focus on the subject of rape, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to women voters. In Houston, Texas, an adaccuses the incumbent district attorney, Republican Devon Anderson, of jailing a rape victim to ensure she would testify. Republican ads againstNorth Carolina gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper and Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running for a Senate seat from Nevada, accuse each of them of putting a low priority on testing rape kits and solving rape crimes in general.
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