North Carolina knows from sad experience about negative election campaigns and misleading, untruthful advertising. In the 1950 campaign, opponents of the late UNC President Frank Porter Graham used a doctored photo of his wife with a black man to inject race into a Senate campaign and help defeat the revered educator. In 1990, Sen. Jesse Helms used the infamous “white hands” ad, blaming the failure of a white person to get a job on a minority and “a racial quota” to help defeat former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.
When Helms retired in 2002 and Salisbury native Elizabeth Dole was elected to take his place, voters here breathed a sigh of relief. Surely Dole would not stoop to the racial appeals that marked too many N.C. elections and soured so many people on politics. It just wasn't her way. While she might be every bit as conservative as Helms, her style was not divisive. She did not demonize her opponents.
Until now. In a new TV ad that must have the late Sen. Helms smiling and cheering from the great beyond, the Dole campaign has attacked her opponent, Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro, as “godless.” Hagan attended a September fundraiser in Boston sponsored by dozens of people and co-hosted by two persons associated with a group called Godless Americans PAC. Dole's ad says Hagan took “godless” money. Hagan's campaign says she did not receive money from the PAC, though she did get money from one of the co-hosts. She has demanded Dole halt the ad.
Hagan's attendance at any fundraiser and acceptance of a contribution is a fair topic for comment. Yet Dole has resorted to the Big Lie technique, morphing a kernel of truth into a monumental fiction.
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How so? The Dole campaign stepped across a broad line, portraying Hagan as not Christian and suggesting she does not believe in God. The Dole ad shows a picture of Hagan while a woman's voice, not Hagan's, intones, “There is no God.”
This is indecent. It is the modern-day version of the “white hands” ad, a lie born of Dole's desperation in a race in which she has trailed for weeks. It is also a deliberate attempt by Dole's campaign not just to distort the truth, but to shatter Hagan's admirable record as an elder for more than a decade in Greensboro's First Presbyterian Church, as a Sunday School teacher and a volunteer in her church's fundraising campaigns, worship services and community service programs.
Political campaigns in this state are often hard-fought, with bitter, overwrought accusations that stretch the truth, embellish the facts and attempt to confuse voters. Hagan has hit Dole hard. Dole has hit Hagan hard. That is par for the course.
This ad is something else, an attack on a Christian woman's faith against all evidence to the contrary. It is wrong. It may well backfire on Dole.
It has no place in N.C. politics. Unless she admits this egregious, shameful mistake and acts appropriately, Elizabeth Dole has no place in N.C. politics, either.