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.
The “background noise” drifting across the Potomac River has also complicated matters for Kilgore. With the conservative movement arrayed in a circular firing line over the nomination of Harriet Miers to the US Supreme Court, and while White House officials and numerous congressional Republicans find themselves ensnared in criminal investigations, Kilgore’s crime-busting image may be tainted by association with a national party steeped in corruption. (Howell refused to discuss with me Rove’s absence from a Kilgore fundraiser he was scheduled to headline–he cancelled at the last minute as the threat of indictment loomed.)
By August Kaine was nipping at Kilgore’s heels. Kilgore responded by stoking fears of a local Latino gang acting as a Trojan horse for Al Qaeda. “We need to know who is here when MS-13 is being contacted by Al Qaeda,” he declared on a Charlottesville-based radio show. Despite an embarrassing rebuke from the FBI, Kilgore stood behind his remarks, citing an article in the right-wing Washington Times as evidence. “In this post-9/11 world, we have got to be ever-vigilant to make sure Al Qaeda does not get a toehold in the United States,” he told the paper on August 23.
Seeking to reverse Kaine’s momentum, the Kilgore camp chose the race’s final debate, on October 9, as the occasion to launch a daring homestretch strategy. It was foreshadowed when debate moderator Larry Sabato asked Kilgore and Kaine to pledge to run a minimum of 51 percent positive advertisements for the remainder of the race. Kaine quickly agreed, but Kilgore hesitated. He vowed to “stand by [his] ads,” then attacked Kaine’s record as an attorney defending criminals facing the death penalty. “Tim Kaine is too liberal on this issue,” Kilgore declared, hammering home a focus group-tested attack line.
Almost as soon as the candidates left their lecterns, Howell lit the heavy artillery. His first salvo took the form of Kelly Timbrook, a blonde, middle-aged widow of a police officer who was slain by a Jamaican man facing deportation for illegal gun possession. Speaking directly into the camera and choking back tears, Timbrook gave an account of the murder:
“Edward Bell was a drug dealer illegally in this country. He was basically waiting for Rick underneath the stairs and shot him a few inches from his face. When they told me, I fell to my knees screaming. Edward Bell is in jail currently waiting on death row. Tim Kaine called for a moratorium on the death penalty. How could you not think the death penalty was appropriate? That’s not justice. When Tim Kaine calls the death penalty murder, I find it offensive. And I don’t trust Tim Kaine to uphold that law.”
Timbrook’s description of Bell shooting her husband “a few inches from his face” was punctuated by the sound of a gunshot. Key phrases like “a drug dealer illegally in this country” were interspersed in bold text with her image. A dark piano soundtrack underscored Timbrook’s script.
The ad was at once intimate and confrontational, and like so many of Howell’s creations, it commanded attention. “Emotion, whether it’s humor, angst, whether it makes you laugh or cry, it helps people to respond,” Howell explained. “We’re in a sound-bite world, and you have to work to get people’s attention.”
Unfortunately for the Kilgore campaign, some of the attention the spot generated proved counterproductive. The lawyer who secured a death penalty verdict against Bell, Paul Thomson, blasted the ad in the Virginia press as “inherently distasteful” and pointed out that it contained a glaring falsehood: Bell, in fact, was not in the country illegally at the time of the murder. Thomson was so incensed he contacted the Kaine campaign.
Howell pleaded ignorance to the specifics of Bell’s case. “The guy was in trouble and he was about to be deported, I think,” Howell said. “And he just happened to be–technically didn’t want to be thrown out of the country, I think. And I’m telling you, I’d love to belabor that with you, I just don’t have the…I can’t stand to talk to somebody in the media and be wrong.”
So was Timbrook’s statement an insidious appeal to prejudice? Again, Howell presented himself as a naïve bystander.
“Basically he [Bell] had jeopardized… you’ve got to verify this,” Howell explained. “But basically, the guy had his visa revoked because of his record, and INS was looking for him to throw him out of the country. He thought it was an INS bust or whatever. That’s something you’ve got to–don’t write anything about that, because I don’t… I know in the moment, it was almost like an extra nugget. It was almost an extra line when talking to her about it. It was sort of germane to the discussion. It wasn’t intentional. It sort of found its way there.”
“Nothing is accidental in this business,” said David Eichenbaum, a media consultant employed by the Kaine campaign, whose firm, Struble/Eichenbaum, worked for Daschle and Cleland during their losses to Howell’s clients. “If something is in an ad, it is meant to be there.”
The Hitler Ad
The controversy Howell’s Timbrook spot aroused paled in comparison to the outrage sparked by what is now commonly known in Virginia as “the Hitler ad.” This Howell-produced spot featured an elderly man, Stanley Rosenbluth, staring into the camera and exclaiming, “Tim Kaine voluntarily represented the man who murdered my son.” In a sixty-second version (timed to debut on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur), Rosenbluth uttered the most memorable statement of the governor’s race thus far: “Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn’t qualify for the death penalty. This was the worst mass murderer in modern times.”
Rosenbluth’s Hitler reference may have been bracing, but it was not a non sequitur. During a lengthy question-and-answer session with reporters in September, Kaine was asked if he would support execution for Hitler, Stalin or Idi Amin. He replied, “If God gives life, God should take it away.” Later in that session, Kaine stated that he would enforce the death penalty despite his personal opposition to it, a fact Howell’s commercial omitted.
Howell, of course, understood that raising the death penalty was a calculated risk. While most Virginians are in favor of it, according to a Hotline poll conducted this month, only 2 percent say it is the issue the next governor should prioritize, compared to 30 percent who cite education. But Howell has a long history of working for politicians–Chambliss, Bush and now Kilgore–who have not gotten ahead through high-minded policy debates. Howell’s attempt to transform the governor’s race into a character contest was practically instinctual. Just as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth undermined public trust in John Kerry by spotlighting his supposed antiwar activities during Vietnam, Howell hopes his crime-victims-for-the-death-penalty spots cast Kaine as, in Howell’s words, “a Harvard-educated liberal activist” who has “tried to have it both ways on a lot of issues.” In short, Kaine is the latest version of the flip-flopper from Massachusetts.
But Howell’s invocation of Hitler ignited an unexpected political firestorm. The Anti-Defamation League and a parade of Virginia-based rabbis condemned the ad for “trivializ[ing] the Holocaust,” while virtually every major newspaper in Virginia ran editorials denouncing it. Among them was the pro-death penalty Daily Press of Newport-News, which wrote, “In the search for votes, Kilgore goes looking in the gutter.” Sensing an opportunity, the Kaine campaign ran an ad promoting the criticism from an array of local newspapers.
Soon, questions about Rosenbluth’s credibility filtered through Virginia political circles. As it happens, Rosenbluth is a professional death penalty advocate and longtime Republican donor who was promoted this year for the National Crime Victims Rights Week award by Kilgore and his campaign co-chair, Senator George Allen. Rosenbluth founded Virginians United Against Crime after a cocaine dealer murdered his son Richard and daughter-in-law Becky for failing to pay him. Needless to say, this sordid background did not appear in Howell’s ad. According to a December 1993 report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richard Rosenbluth “had apparently become a ‘hard-core’ crack user who was so addicted to the drug, ‘little else mattered to him at this point.'”
In a conference call with reporters after the Kilgore ad aired, Kaine explained that while his law firm was appointed by a judge to represent Richard Rosenbluth’s killer, his own involvement in the case was limited to providing forty minutes of advice to the lawyer who argued it. Kaine’s campaign swiftly placed an ad on the air to deflect Howell’s charges. In it, Kaine described his personal opposition to the death penalty as a reflection of his Catholic faith, while pledging to uphold death penalty sentencing. A September Washington Post poll that asked voters whether they believed Kaine would enforce the death penalty despite his personal opposition found 63 percent of respondents did.
A week after Howell’s attack ads began, polls by Survey USA poll and Hotline showed Kaine ahead by two points. Though polls by Rasmussen and Mason-Dixon had Kilgore in front by two percentage points, his meager lead reflected the failure of Howell’s ad blitz to restore his previously commanding position in the race. Hoping to stop a possible backlash, the Kilgore campaign yanked Howell’s death penalty spots and replaced them with more conventionally styled ads criticizing Kaine’s position on suburban transportation congestion. Kaine’s death penalty ads, meanwhile, are still airing throughout Virginia.
Howell is puzzled by the indignation his death penalty strategy inspired. “You can’t watch the spots and say I didn’t do it in a tasteful way,” he said. “I actually try to be careful on those issues.” (During the controversy over Howell’s “Safer, Stronger” ad in 2004, Bush’s then-campaign adviser, Karen Hughes, defended it as “very tasteful.”) “I try to be very credible and very factual. I try to be right in the fact,” Howell added. “I can’t stand putting something on television, whether I’m talking about taxes or the death penalty–it’s important to be accurate. It’s important to me to always be accurate.” As for his client, Howell concedes, “We’re not in the best environment to be running a campaign.”
The media man has helped engineer more than his share of come-from-behind victories against formidable opponents, but the atmosphere is growing perilous. On election day, November 8, Kilgore may suffer collateral damage from indictments of senior White House officials–including Howell’s former partner, Karl Rove. But even before national events descended on the Virginia gubernatorial race, the tried-and-true media tactics in the Republican arsenal proved to be duds. For decades the Republicans have perfected their negative game plan, but this particular race may begin to demonstrate its exhaustion.