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Kilgore Death Penalty Ads Didn’t Cost Him Election

With last night’s Virginia gubernatorial election behind us, the pundits have already begun their Monday morning quarterbacking, so why should I be any different?

The Democrats, of course, will try to make this about President Bush.  They will try to say that Kaine’s victory was a signal that voters are expressing their displeasure at Bush’s policies.

Once the Democrats have finished blaming Bush, they will say Kilgore’s “attack ads” cost him the election.  I find it ironic that when Democrats lose, they blame it on Republican attack ads, and when they win, they say it’s because of Republican attack ads.  You can’t have it both ways; they either work or they don’t.

I was one of many who went on record saying the death penalty ads (produced by Scott Howe) were legitimate and very effective.  In retrospect, I believe they would have been more effective under the following circumstances:

  1. The Swift Boat ads were highly effective and emotional.  However, because they were delivered by a third party (rather than the Bush campaign), there wasn’t much of a backlash for “going negative.”  Granted, Virginia law is different from federal law.  Still, if a third party—or a surrogate—had been able to deliver the attacks on Kaine, Kilgore would have been able to stay above the fray.
  2. The ads aired too soon.  The ads worked well initially (some people have forgotten that, already).  The ads put Kaine on the defense, and gave Kilgore a quick boost in the polls.  Had these ads been embargoed until the week before the election, there would have been no time for Kaine to respond, and the backlash would have been minimal.
  3. For some unknown reason, the ads mentioned Hitler.  Granted, it is factually true that Kaine would oppose the death penalty, even if it were for Hitler.  But was it wise to inject his name into this debate?  It was a particularly curious choice, when you consider that just months ago Sen. Rick Santorum and Dick Durbin were both excoriated for drawing Hitler analogies.

Hindsight is 20/20.  Critics will blame Bush and blame the ads, but the ultimate reason Kilgore lost and Kaine won was the zeitgeist.  It was a good year to be a Democrat.  Last year would have been completely different, and I’m hoping that next year will be, too.  A lot can happen in 12 months.

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Written By

Mr. Lewis has managed political campaigns and served as director of grassroots for the Leadership Institute, as well as political director for GOPAC. In 2002, Campaigns & Elections magazine selected him as a "Rising Star of Politics." He is the author of "Teaching Elephants to Talk." His blog can be read at MattLewis.org.

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