The Cost Of Sharron Angle’s Race Play

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Sadly, Sharron Angle’s latest ad, which Adam links to below, joins a long tradition of down-to-the-wire political advertising that cynically exploits racial fears to win elections. It is worth taking a moment to put this sort of work in historical context.

Here is Jesse Helms “Hands” ad from the 1990 North Carolina Senate campaign, which is largely credited with closing the gap and getting Helms the victory. The ad maker, who has since become an enormously successful GOP consultant, Alex Castellanos, later defended the spot as not playing the “race card.”

The Republican National Committee took a far subtler tack in this 2006 spot that mocked Harold Ford, a black candidate running for the Senate in Tennessee, for having once attended an event at the Playboy mansion.

Perhaps the best antecedent for the Angle spot is the 1988 Willie Horton spot, which was run by a third party group supporting the election of then Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Bush’s campaign manager at the time, Lee Atwater, did not explicitly approve this spot, though he did approve of using the Horton issue against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. On his deathbed in 1991, Atwater said this to LIFE magazine: “In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate.’ . . . I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.”

As for Angle, she will either win or lose. But either way, the Republican Party is stuck with having to explain spots like hers to Hispanic Americans, who are the fastest growing voting demographic in the country and the likely key to winning presidential swing states for decades to come. Ads like Angle’s are a burden Republicans must bear.

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