When Sen. David Vitter ran a TV ad in late October accusing his Democratic opponent in the Louisiana governor’s race of supporting the release of “5,500 dangerous thugs” and “drug dealers” from prison, criminal-justice-reform advocates were worried.
The ad marked the first time a candidate in a high-profile race had made hay out of proposed changes to the criminal-justice system since it emerged as one of the few issues in recent years to win broad-based bipartisan support, including inside the Capitol.
Outside the presidential race, criminal-justice reform has yet to receive much attention from Senate or House candidates in competitive races in 2016, but that could change once bills come up for consideration in Congress next year. The issue has already been part of the debate in Democratic Senate primaries in Illinois and Maryland, and it's likely to come up in state races.
But thanks to the Vitter spot, the U.S. Justice Action Network, a prominent coalition of liberal and conservative groups pushing for a package of federal reforms next year, was able to use the Louisiana race as a live experiment to test the potency of anti-reform attacks.
“Louisiana was the first time justice reform was a top-tier issue in a contest of the magnitude of a governor’s race, and obviously it turned out well for us,” said the group’s executive director, Holly Harris, referring to Vitter’s loss.