This is the story I’ve been waiting to write for a month now.
As anybody who reads a newspaper knows, Virginia just elected its second consecutive Democratic governor. And this is one of the most reliably red states around. It handed Bush a 12-point victory state wide in 2004. In fact, the last time Virginia voted Democratic in a presidential election was back in Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide.
However, Virginians gave its present Democratic governor, Mark Warner, high marks for performance. He now enjoys a 70 percent approval rating. And he threw his support and prestige on the line for Tim Kaine, who just became governor-elect on Tuesday. I guess Mark had some political capital and he spent it.
But, here’s the real story in this election.
It’s that Jerry Kilgore, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, ran a series of negative attack ads put together by the same team that crafted and produced the Swift Boat ads against John Kerry, and this time their efforts failed. Not only did they fail, they produced a voter backlash against Kilgore.
The actual ads were visually stunning. The first one showed a young, pretty widow sitting on a stool in a stark setting, talking about her policeman husband, who was murdered in the line of duty. The widow, with her long blond hair and a tear rolling down her cheek, said that the person who took her husband’s life deserved the death penalty and she just didn’t trust Tim Kaine to administer it. Powerful stuff in a state that favors the death penalty and has some of the harshest laws on the books. Virginia carries out more executions than any other state except Texas.
A second ad with the same stark power depicted a father talking about his son and daughter-in-law being murdered and condemned Tim Kaine for working as the defense lawyer for the person accused of the murders. The father ended with a statement that Tim Kaine would even defend Adolph Hitler.
And that’s when the trouble started for Jerry Kilgore. Firstly, although the father who made the statement was himself Jewish, Jewish groups from the B’nai Brith Anti-Defamation League to local synagogue groups decried the Hitler statement. Kilgore defiantly stood by it, stating that it was the father’s own words not his. Still, the ad was condemned for trivializing Hitler’s genocide and for displaying insensitivity to Holocaust victims. You know, all the stuff Republicans complained about when Dick Durbin likened Abu Gharib to Hitler’s concentration camps. It seems that Republicans are so used to operating with a double standard, complaining when they are slandered but feeling free to do worse to their opponents, that it never occurred to them that they’d be called on it by people who said they couldn’t have it both ways and so they too should leave Hitler out of it.
But then it got worse. The newspapers weighed in with editorials faulting the second commercial. As the editorial boards pointed out in newspapers from all over the state, and of varying political stripes, Tim Kaine, in that particular case, was providing pro bono services which all lawyers are required to do. He was assigned this case to fulfill a professional obligation. The newspapers piled on Kilgore because, as an attorney general, nobody should know this better than him.
And then it got even worse. Within a day or two, Tim Kaine responded with his own ad. He looked into the camera, said, “I’m Tim Kaine and I approved this ad (all candidates in Virginia have to “stand by their ad” which is the name of the law requiring them to do so). Kaine further stated that he is indeed against the death penalty because of his religious convictions but, as governor, he would carry out death sentences because “that’s the law in Virginia.”
In this ad, Tim Kaine sat behind a desk and looked straight into the camera when he said these things. The thing of it is that it looked like he was looking you straight in the eye and talking to you from his heart. And it was the most effective ad he ran. It turned around the campaign.
People turned against Kilgore in droves, citing his negative ads. In poll after poll, moderates and independents told pollsters they thought Kilgore had unfairly attacked Tim Kaine for his religious beliefs. They also said they thought Kilgore was dishonest and would say anything to get elected. And even where they disagreed with Kaine, they found him likeable and honest.
Many pundits are now writing that negative ads did not work and that they turned off voters. But that’s only partly true.
As Bush and others have proved many times over, negative ads can work powerfully. They can deliver an election to a candidate. But if the candidate using a negative ad is discovered to have lied, it can backfire powerfully too and that’s what happened here.
Once voters discerned that Kilgore had distorted Kaine’s record, they never trusted him again.
Compare this to what happened to John Kerry when he was faced with the Swift Boat ads. The reason they worked so well was because Kerry never stood in front of the camera and looked his audience in the eye and called his accusers liars. He never said, "This is not true; here are my Bronze Star, my Medal of Honor, my Purple Heart, and my Silver Star. Here is my official record."
Of course, newspapers eventually pointed all this out. But if Kerry would have stood up with quiet dignity and told the truth and called the liars on their fabrications, the effect would have deflated the accusations like a defective balloon leaking hot air.
The public does not want negative and dishonest attack ads. But it will listen to them, believe them, and be influenced by them unless the victim of the ad stands up and defends himself. And the most powerful defense, as Tim Kaine taught us, is truth. He stood up, looked straight into the TV camera, told his story, and challenged Kilgore’s lies. And that is always how the good guys win elections.