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Begich's Willie Horton-Style Ad Stirs Up Alaska Senate Race

Begich's Willie Horton-Style Ad Stirs Up Alaska Senate Race

By Scott Conroy - September 2, 2014

The highly competitive Alaska Senate race turned vitriolic over the holiday weekend after Democratic incumbent Mark Begich's campaign released a brutal new TV ad that tied Republican challenger Dan Sullivan to circumstances surrounding a horrific Anchorage murder case.  

On Friday, the Begich campaign began airing the ad -- now pulled from the airwaves --which featured a retired Anchorage police officer recounting the circumstances of a 2013 crime. In that case, a man named Jerry Active stands accused of murdering an elderly couple and sexually assaulting their 2-year-old granddaughter and the girl’s 91-year-old great-grandmother.  

Active had been previously convicted of the attempted sexual assault of a minor in 2009 -- a crime that should have led to an eight-year-minimum prison sentence, due to an earlier felony conviction -- but he was released early because of a faulty plea deal in 2010 that did not take into account his previous record. 

The Begich ad suggested that Sullivan deserved some of the blame for the sentencing error, since he was state attorney general at the time that the plea deal was made.  The Sullivan campaign has said that a failure to place the prior conviction in the court system database occurred before the Senate candidate became attorney general.

“I don’t know how long Dan Sullivan lived in Alaska, but I know what he did as attorney general,” the retired officer says in the ad. “He let a lot of sex offenders get off with light sentences.” 

The Sullivan campaign reacted strongly to the assertions in the ad.

“He is lying to Alaskans and using the murder of an elderly couple and the sexual assault of a two-year-old for his own political gain, and it’s despicable,” Sullivan said in a statement posted by the Washington Examiner. 

Sullivan’s campaign then released its own ad, titled “Shameful,” which condemned the Begich spot and disputed as baseless the charge that the Republican nominee has been soft on crime.  

An attorney for the victims’ family then asked both campaigns to take down their ads, noting that the messages could affect Active’s trial, which is set for later this month, and that they were causing distress to the survivors.  

The Sullivan campaign complied. “Mark Begich began this distasteful and offensive debate, and our campaign is pleased we could play a role, along with the victims' attorney, in ending it," said Sullivan for U.S. Senate spokesman Mike Anderson. 

The Begich campaign, however, initially stopped short of pulling its ad and instead modified it “to remove any potential reference to the pending criminal case,” according to a spokesperson.   

On Tuesday, however, a Begich spokesperson told RCP that the campaign had requested that the TV stations take the original ad off the air.  

“We made a request to switch our ad with stations at 6:30 am (Alaska) yesterday after stating on Saturday night we would do so,” the Begich spokesperson said in an email.  

There were no references on Begich’s campaign website Tuesday to the original spot.  

Begich’s injection of a heinous murder into a political campaign sparked memories of an infamous 1988 “Willie Horton ad,” which linked Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis to a Massachusetts program in which a convicted murderer received a weekend furlough and subsequently committed rape and armed robbery. 

Begich leads Sullivan by 4.6 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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