THE BLOG
11/09/2005 04:28 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Willie Horton's Swift Boat Crashes In Virginia

Republican Jerry Kilgore's defeat in Virginia is not only a reflection of voter disillusionment with George W. Bush, who swooped in at the eleventh hour for a rally with the gubernatorial hopeful, it marks a stunning repudiation of the GOP's vaunted attack machine. Throughout the campaign, Kilgore avoided the issues Virginians cared about most -- transportation and education -- homing in instead on the character of his opponent, Tim Kaine. This time-tested Republican strategy proved to be a grave miscalculation.

Kilgore hired veteran Republican adman Scott Howell to spearhead his assault on Kaine's character. As a disciple of Lee Atwater, who masterminded the notorious Willie Horton ads that destroyed Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign, and as the former political director for Karl Rove and Company, Howell learned the dark arts from two of its masters.

He applied his lessons in Georgia in 2002 with a spot that superimposed Vietnam veteran Sen. Max Cleland's image with those of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, helping deliver the race to the draft-dodging Republican, Saxby Chambliss. Two years later, Howell crafted a commercial for the Bush/Cheney campaign depicting firefighters carrying a flag-draped coffin from the wreckage of Ground Zero while Bush delivered a typically triumphalist address. Though the firefighters were played by actors and the ad was condemned by the International Association of Firefighters and bereaved 9/11 family members, it was instrumental in reinforcing Bush's "war president" image.

When Howell's handiwork surfaced in Virginia, it did so midway through the campaign in the form of an elderly man named Stanley Rosenbluth. Rosenbluth spoke directly to the camera, plaintively describing his son's murder and denouncing Tim Kaine for allegedly representing the assailant pro bono. With an ominous piano score playing in the background, Rosenbluth then declared the line that would come to define Kilgore's campaign: "Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty. This was the worst mass murderer in modern times." That this ad first appeared on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur was not lost on many viewers.

(Rosenbluth's son was a crack-addict killed when he refused to pay his dealer, whom Kaine did not personally represent -- two small facts omitted by Howell. You can learn the whole, sordid story of this ad in my profile of Howell for the Nation, "Hitler in Virginia.")

Though Howell's ad purported to be a critique of Kaine's opposition to the death penalty, its larger theme was a celebrated motif of Republican pseudo-populism: the mobilization of resentment against liberal "elites." As Howell told me, "Tim Kaine is a Harvard-educated liberal activist" who has "tried to have it both ways on issues." In short, Kaine was the latest incarnation of the flip-flopper from Massachusetts.

When the dust cleared, it was clear Howell's salvo had backfired. In a poll on voter impressions of his Hitler ad, 25% of respondents said the spot made them less likely to vote for Kilgore. Nearly 70% said they had either not seen it or were not moved at all by it. In the meantime, Kaine pulled ahead of Kilgore for the first time in the campaign. (Perhaps Kilgore should have hired Max Bialystock instead of Howell).

Kilgore was unable to recover his lost momentum. In a fit of desperation toward the end of the race, Howell crafted an ad detailing Kaine's supposed contradictions of his own positions while a man bounced on a trampoline and the words, "Flip-Flop" flashed on the screen. This tired reminder of the Bush/Cheney campaign would only accelerate Kilgore's demise.

With the finest image handlers at his disposal, Jerry Kilgore cloaked himself in the dark, hyper-emotional aesthetic of the Republican campaigns of yesteryear. His rejection by the so-called "red state voters" of Virginia was thus a rebuke of the style the GOP has cultivated to enable and preserve its electoral domination. Let Kilgore's counterparts across the Potomac River shudder at this lesson.