A White woman with blonde hair and bare shoulders looks into the camera and whispers, “Harold, call me,” and then winks.
This Republican National Committee television ad doesn’t mention that “Harold” Democratic Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. is Black, but the NAACP and others have complained the commercial makes an implicit appeal to deep-seated racial fears about Black men and White women.
Race was always an element of the Tennessee contest as Ford seeks to become the first Black man elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. The issue slammed into the public consciousness this week with the latest ad. “I’ve not met any observer who didn’t immediately say, ‘Oh my gosh!
’ It was a race card,” said Vanderbilt University professor John Geer, an expert on political attack ads.
Hilary Shelton, director of Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the ad plays off fears some people still have about interracial couples.
“In a Southern state like Tennessee, some stereotypes still exist,” he said. “There’s very clearly some racial subtext in an ad like that.”
The Republican National Committee, which paid for the ad, denied that it had any racial subtext. Party chairman Ken Mehlman said it was produced by an independent organization, in accordance with campaign finance law, “without the knowledge, the participation, the advice, the approval or the involvement of either the national party or the campaign.”
“We essentially write a check to an independent entity and they do what they want with it,” Mehlman said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Mehlman’s dismissal of claims the GOP is playing the race card comes as the party chairman pushes the candidacy of three Black Republicans in contests farther north gubernatorial candidates Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio and Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, and Senate candidate Michael Steele in Maryland.
Mehlman also has made an effort in this election cycle to attract African-Americans to the GOP, speaking to various Black groups around the country.
In the ad, the woman brags, “I met Harold at the Playboy party!” an apparent reference to Ford’s attendance at a Playboy Super Bowl party in Jacksonville, Fla., last year.
“I was there. I like football, and I like girls,” Ford said Tuesday.
“When I saw it after it had been up, my reaction was not that I thought that this ad was racist,” Mehlman said. But he added: “I have heard from people who I respect who raised concerns about it from that perspective.”
Ford’s Republican rival, Bob Corker, called the ad tacky and said it should be taken off the air.
The ad began a five-day run Friday, and the RNC said the commercial is no longer on the air. However, the ad was still airing in the Nashville market Wednesday.
Some have also questioned a Corker radio ad that plays drums in the background every time Ford’s name is mentioned. The Corker campaign said it was preposterous to suggest the radio spot had a coded racial message. The same music, with drums, appears in a Corker TV commercial that doesn’t mention Ford.
Under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act passed by Congress in 2002, political parties can pay for “independent expenditure” advertisements against opponents that do not count against legal spending limits on campaigns. But the party is not allowed to play any role in creating the ad or deciding how and when it will be used.
Democratic National Committee general counsel Joe Sandler said that Mehlman did have power to pull the ad from the airwaves, even if he had no control over the content, because the RNC is responsible for the advertisement.
“He could take it down with a phone call,” Sandler said.
Ford has clashed with Republicans over ads earlier this year.
Ford has accused the RNC of using a “dark, shadowy figure” to represent him in a TV ad. He told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the ad “injects a little race in this thing, the way they have me pictured.”
He also suggested that the Tennessee Republican Party used a darkened black-and-white image of him on a fundraising letter. Ford is light-skinned.
An independent group briefly aired a radio ad that had the most explicit attack.
The ad, paid for a group identified as Tennesseans for Truth and aired on a small station near Nashville, criticized Ford’s membership in the Congressional Black Caucus, which the ad said “represents the interests of Black people above all others.”
Both Republican and Democratic officials have said they did not know who was behind Tennesseans for Truth.
The RNC ad is “breaking new ground and, frankly, breaking new lows,” Geer said. It makes the 1998 “Willie Horton” ad a good example of using implicit racial messages look tame by comparison, Geer said.
The “Willie Horton” ad aired during the presidential campaign and accused Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime. The ad showed a photo of convicted criminal Willie Horton, a Black man. George H.W. Bush defeated Dukakis.
In a close Senate race in 1990, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms ran an ad that showed a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter with an announcer saying, “You needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority.”
Helms, who had been trailing Black Democrat Harvey Gantt in the polls, won on Election Day.
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