With one week until election day, Sharron Angle is running an immigration-focused ad that features many menacing photos of Latino men clutching weapons, getting patted down by the police, and posing for mug shots.
This ad is reminiscent of some other racially charged, down-to-the-wire spots we've seen before.
Perhaps the best-known example of this is the Willie Horton ad from 1988, in which an independent group tied Michael Dukakis to a black convict who raped and killed a woman after escaping from a furlough program Dukakis supported. Horton's menacing mug shot, which the ad displayed, has become symbolic of racial fear-mongering in political campaigns.
Another iconic ad in this tradition is Jesse Helms' "hands" ad, which the North Carolina senator ran toward the end of his race against the former mayor of Charlotte, an African American man named Harvey Gantt. The ad features a white man's hands balling up a job rejection notice. "You needed that job. And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota," a narrator says. "For racial quotas: Harvey Gantt. Against racial quotas: Jesse Helms." The ad is credited with helping Helms catch up to Gantt in the polls and win re-election.
Race has already played a role in Angle's campaign. She's run a series of anti-illegal immigration ads and has drawn flak from Hispanics for some of them. While Angle was speaking at a Nevada high school, some Hispanic students questioned her about an ad pairing pictures of dark-skinned men with the phrase "illegal aliens." Angle told the students that she didn't think the men in the ad were necessarily Latino, and that in fact the students themselves didn't look definitively Latino--"some of you look a little more Asian to me," she added. Angle talked about the Canadian border, claiming that "that's where the terrorists came through"--an erroneous statement that Canada's ambassador asked Angle to retract.
In her latest immigration-themed ad, however, Angle clears up any confusion concerning which border she's worried about. The ad begins with flashes of an El Paso border station and images of burly Hispanic men holding guns. "Waves of illegal aliens streaming across our border, joining violent gangs, forcing families to live in fear," a narrator says. Illustrating the fearful families is a white woman who looks down at a white man, presumably her husband, shielding his face in worry.
The narrator goes on to claim that Angle's opponent, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, is voting to give illegal immigrants Social Security benefits, tax breaks, and college tuition. Contrasted with a mug shot of a young Hispanic man in a bandana is a classroom full of eager white children. "Harry Reid: it's clear whose side he's on," the narrator says at the end of the ad. "And it's not yours."
This ad draws us vs. them, white vs. non-white lines far more explicitly than the Willie Horton or Jesse Helms ads did. It leaves no question about who Nevadan voters should fear. Angle's ad may join Horton and "hands" in racial messaging infamy, but both of those ads saw a political pay-off. Next week will tell us whether this messaging works in 2010, when directed at a state with a large illegal immigrant population and the highest unemployment rate in the country.