In Democratic Election Ads in South, a Focus on Racial Scars

Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times, October 30, 2014

In the final days before the election, Democrats in the closest Senate races across the South are turning to racially charged messages–invoking Trayvon Martin’s death, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Jim Crow-era segregation–to jolt African-Americans into voting and stop a Republican takeover in Washington.

The images and words they are using are striking for how overtly they play on fears of intimidation and repression. And their source is surprising. The effort is being led by national Democrats and their state party organizations–not, in most instances, by the shadowy and often untraceable political action committees that typically employ such provocative messages.

In North Carolina, the “super PAC” started by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, ran an ad on black radio that accused the Republican candidate, Thom Tillis, of leading an effort to pass the kind of gun law that “caused the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.”

In Georgia, Democrats are circulating a flier warning that voting is the only way “to prevent another Ferguson.” It shows two black children holding cardboard signs that say “Don’t shoot.”

The messages are coursing through the campaigns like a riptide, powerful and under the surface, largely avoiding television and out of view of white voters. That has led Republicans to accuse Democrats of turning to race-baiting in a desperate bid to win at the polls next Tuesday.

“They have been playing on this nerve in the black community that if you even so much as look at a Republican, churches will start to burn, your civil rights will be taken away and young black men like Trayvon Martin will die,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican Party. “The reality of it is, the Democrats realize that their most loyal constituency is not as loyal as they once were.”

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One way to hang on is to increase the share of the black vote that typically turns out in a midterm election. To do so, Democrats are seizing on racial mistrust and unease, the same complicated emotions often used against them in the South.

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The group started by Mr. Reid, Senate Majority PAC, ran the ad on black radio that Republicans said all but accused Mr. Tillis, the Republican speaker of the State House, of killing Mr. Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot in Florida in 2012. In the ad, the announcer reads through a list of policies Mr. Tillis supported that blacks are likely to find offensive, like curtailing early voting in the state. And then it turns more ominous.

“Tillis even led the effort to pass the type of ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws that caused the shooting death of Trayvon Martin,” the announcer says. The music playing in the background abruptly stops.

Republicans have slammed the ad as race-baiting. “Have you heard this race-hustling Kay Hagan ad paid for by Harry Reid’s super PAC?” a new radio ad paid for by a conservative group asks, referring to the Democratic incumbent. “Probably not. Because they’re not running it on this station.”

Though Mr. Tillis was the speaker of the State Assembly at the time the law passed, he was not an ardent supporter of it. One local gun-rights group criticized him for not being supportive enough at the time.

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At a campaign rally over the weekend for Senator Hagan, one of her supporters, Alma Adams, who is in the State Legislature, said, “We need to send Uncle Thom–Tillis, that is–home.”

Ms. Hagan’s campaign has often referred to remarks in which Mr. Tillis appeared to equate reparations for slavery with social welfare programs. Governments created such public assistance programs, he said in 2007, based in part on the “belief that we should provide additional reparations” to those whose ancestors were enslaved.

In addition, at a black church in Fayetteville, leaflets with a grainy image of a lynching have appeared, warning voters that if Ms. Hagan loses, President Obama will be impeached.

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In Arkansas, voters are opening mailboxes to find leaflets with images of the Ferguson protests and the words: “Enough! Republicans are targeting our kids, silencing our voices and even trying to impeach our president.” The group distributing them is Color of Change, a grass-roots civil rights organization.

In Georgia, the state Democratic Party is mixing themes of racial discrimination with appeals to rally behind the only black man elected president. “It’s up to us to vote to protect the legacy of the first African-American president,” one flier reads.

Another invokes Ferguson. “If you want to prevent another Ferguson in their future,” the leaflet says over a picture of two young black children, “vote. It’s up to you to make change happen.”

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