Hitler in Virginia
Nearly two weeks after Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore ran two of the most controversial commercials in recent political history, his media consultant would not stand by their truthfulness. "I'd love to belabor that with you," Scott Howell told me when I asked him about the accuracy of his advertisements. "I just don't have the--I can't stand to talk to somebody in the media and be wrong." He then described his ads as "tasteful."
Howell's circumspection was a startling inversion of his public persona. Notorious for his audacious, hyperemotional attack ads, he describes himself as "Little Lee Atwater" after the late fabled Republican negative campaign consultant who was his and Karl Rove's mentor.
Howell has played a critical but unheralded role in securing the Republican Party's recent domination of national politics. He was instrumental in shifting the Senate to the Republicans in 2002 by a one-member margin. In the Georgia senatorial race, he crafted the commercial for the draft-dodging Republican candidate Saxby Chambliss to vanquish Senator Max Cleland, a decorated war hero who lost three limbs in Vietnam, morphing Cleland's image with those of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Two years later Howell's spots contributed to the defeat of both then-Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and Oklahoma Democratic senatorial candidate Brad Carson. Howell's ads on behalf of Daschle's opponent, John Thune, highlighted Thune's opposition to gay marriage. To undermine Carson, Howell created an image of welfare checks being passed to anonymous brown hands. Howell also set the stage for President George W. Bush's re-election victory with the ad called "Safer, Stronger," which appropriated the iconic image of firefighters emerging from the wreckage of Ground Zero with a flag-draped body, a production that used actors and was condemned as phony by the president of the International Association of Firefighters.
Howell cut his teeth in the rough-and-tumble environment of South Carolina politics. Fresh out of college in 1984, he lost a disputed election for a seat in the state legislature. Soon after, he was hired by Lee Atwater, the Palmetto State's hell-raising consultant, who engineered the re-election of Senator Strom Thurmond and oversaw Ronald Reagan's 1984 Southern Strategy. Howell learned the dark arts through close observation of Atwater's dismantling of 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis's career through a series of ads linking Dukakis to Willie Horton, a black murderer who escaped from a Massachusetts furlough program to commit a rape. In 1992 Atwater recommended Howell to another protégé, Texas boy wonder Karl Rove, who hired him as his firm's political director. Howell opened his own consulting company in Dallas the following year, and the Democratic body count began rising.
On his path to becoming one of the GOP's premier admen, the 46-year-old Howell has earned his share of detractors, from immigrant rights advocates to family members of 9/11 victims, one of whom called his "Safer, Stronger" spot "a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people." But for Howell such criticism comes with the territory.
"I'm not nearly as callous as they try to make me," he said. "You know how it is: They hate me because we beat 'em. I guess you could say it's a badge of honor in my business."
For Kilgore, Virginia's former attorney general, Howell's fearsome reputation made him the logical choice to send his message to the small screen. Kilgore faces the state's lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, a former civil rights lawyer and heir apparent to Virginia's popular Democratic governor, Mark Warner. Kilgore entered the race with a double-digit lead but soon found himself unable to gain traction using hallmark conservative issues.
On taxes, he was stymied by broad public support for Warner and Kaine's $1.4 billion tax increase. On guns, Kaine's "Sportsmen for Kaine" has worked to counter Kilgore's support from the NRA. And on social issues, while Kilgore irritated his Christian right backers by shying away from a vow to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned, Kaine suffered no repercussions when he became the first major candidate in Virginia history to publicly defend gays and lesbians from political attacks.