In 1988, Republicans slammed Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis over Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who attacked a man and sexually assaulted a woman compliments of Massachusetts’ weekend furlough program. This was used to paint Dukakis as soft on crime.
It was a particularly nasty ad (I mean that in a good way)–and Democrats seem to be trying to do the same thing to Republicans in some of the 2014 elections. Trying to spin legal decisions in a way that portrays them as incompetent, soft on crime, and, at times; engaging in a war on women. In Alaska and Texas, I guess you can say liberals are trying to “Willie Horton” Republicans Dan Sullivan and Greg Abbott, respectively.
My colleague, Dan Doherty, already wrote about the horrid ad from Democrat Wendy Davis’ campaign slamming Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott over his tenure as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court.
The victim was a woman raped by a traveling salesman for a vacuum cleaner company. She sued saying that the company was liable for not performing a background check on her attacker, who was a convicted sex offender. The ad says Abbott ruled that the company wasn’t responsible, although the Court disagreed with him. In short, Abbott supported a company over a sexual assault victim. Dan included the Abbott campaign’s response to this attack [emphasis mine]:
"This ad is a continuation of the type of rhetoric we've seen from a candidate who is paper-thin on substance and running a failing campaign devoid of any real vision for the future of Texas. Texans deserve better than the gutter politics they are getting from Sen. Davis.
"No one has a stronger record fighting the heinous crime of sexual assault than Greg Abbott. Not only did he create dedicated units to arrest and prosecute sex offenders and protect women and children from assault, he's responsible for putting more offenders in jail than all of his predecessors combined. In the case referenced in Sen. Davis' despicable ad, Greg Abbott's decision left intact the liability against the sex offender and his employer. No amount of desperate distortion attempts or token ad buys by Sen. Davis can change the facts of Greg Abbott's record of fighting for Texans."
Oh, and the Davis campaign released this ad without contacting the victim.
In Alaska, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich tried to say Sullivan deserved some blame for a "sentencing error" when he was the state's Attorney General, which led to a brutal murder and rape. The ad featured a retired policeman recalling the 2013 murder of an elderly couple at the hands of Jerry Active. He later sexually assaulted their 2-year-old granddaughter and the girl's 91-year-old great-grandmother (via Real Clear Politics):
Active had been previously convicted of the attempted sexual assault of a minor in 2009 -- a crime that should have led to an eight-year-minimum prison sentence, due to an earlier felony conviction -- but he was released early because of a faulty plea deal in 2010 that did not take into account his previous record.
The Begich ad suggested that Sullivan deserved some of the blame for the sentencing error, since he was state attorney general at the time that the plea deal was made. The Sullivan campaign has said that a failure to place the prior conviction in the court system database occurred before the Senate candidate became attorney general.
“I don’t know how long Dan Sullivan lived in Alaska, but I know what he did as attorney general,” the retired officer says in the ad. “He let a lot of sex offenders get off with light sentences.”
The Sullivan campaign vociferously condemned the ad–and the victims’ family were outraged that Begich used their tragedy to win political points. Begich has withdrawn the ad after family members voiced their outrage, according to the Washington Examiner:
Bryon Collins, the attorney for the victims and their family, said that Begich's campaign did not receive permission from his clients before running the ad. He said they tried to contact his clients, who did not return their calls.
Collins' call for Begich’s campaign to stop running the ad was full of blistering criticism.
“You are tearing this family apart to the point that your ad was so shocking to them they now want to permanently leave the state as quickly as possible,” he wrote Monday in a letter to Begich.
“You[r] campaign is playing pure politics at the expense of my clients, 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,” he continued.
The attorney's letter also expressed concern that Begich's ads could hurt the case by spoiling the jury pool.
"[Y]our whole campaign fundamentally ignores the fact that our system of Justice is built on a presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law," he wrote.
And the state’s current attorney general, Michael Geraghty, said the ad has “no basis in fact.”
Sullivan is also pulling an ad responding to Begich’s accusations. Forrest Nabors, a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said that this ad was a risk for the Begich campaign. It’s something you need to deploy if you’re down; a risk you're going to have to take in order to win on Election Day. According to Nabors, the ad is indicative of how the Begich campaign views this race; they'll need to use everything they've got. On average, Sullivan is trailing Sen. Begich by 4.6 points.
These are dirty tactics no doubt, but Sullivan and Abbott didn’t go to prison, nor were they convicted of heinous offenses. The Willie Horton ad worked because he was all of those things. While a Republican created the furlough program in 1972, it didn’t include giving first-degree murders weekend passes; that was the work of the Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court. Nevertheless, then-Gov. Dukakis “long supported, and at times actively defended, the practice of giving furloughs to inmates serving life terms without parole,” according to a 1988 New York Times article. Oh, and here's the record of that program at the time:
At the heart of the debate over the furlough system in Massachusetts was the question of acceptable risk. Since the program began, 10,835 inmates have participated; 428 of them escaped and 219 returned late, according to the State Department of Corrections. Fourteen of them are still at large. No more than 55 inmates serving life without parole participated in the furlough program in any given year, according to the state; 11 of them have escaped, including Mr. Horton. Of those 11, 5 were convicted of other crimes committed after they escaped, according to a state legislative report, and one is still at large.Abbott and Sullivan don't have to answer for this awful policy.
Democrats are trying to execute their own Willie Horton-style attacks against GOP candidates with lackluster results. Davis’ ad was misconstrued, Begich’s media spot exploded in his face, and unlike the Active case; Horton was already tried and sentenced to life without parole for his crimes.
Things are starting to get ugly is some places.
Editor's note: This post has been updated since publication.