The famous – or infamous, depending on your point of view – “godless” TV commercial in North Carolina's campaign for the U.S. Senate almost didn't happen.
For starters, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole's campaign didn't think Democratic challenger Kay Hagan would follow through with plans to attend a Boston fundraiser hosted by a couple known for promoting atheist causes. Certainly not after the Dole campaign had sent out a news release attacking Hagan for even scheduling such an event.
Even then, Dole's campaign thought it would run such an ad only as a last resort. And then it would be the mildest version of the ad.
So says Fred Davis, the Hollywood-based media consultant who produced the ad, which became one of the most discussed TV commercials in the nation during the past election.
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Critics of the ad from the right and the left accused Dole of questioning Hagan's faith. Hagan, a Sunday school teacher and elder in her Presbyterian church in Greensboro, called the ad “despicable” and ran her own ad accusing Dole of “bearing false witness against fellow Christians.”
But Davis insists the commercial was not designed to question Hagan's faith. He said it was about her decision to attend the fundraiser.
“It was about her judgment,” Davis said in a telephone interview last week. “I never questioned her faith. A lot of people questioned that in hindsight. But that's not the point.”
The “godless” ad is likely to be remembered in history as one of North Carolina's most famous TV political commercials, joining the likes of Sen. Jesse Helms' “white hands” ad in 1990, which said that his black opponent, Harvey Gantt, favored racial quotas. Or the 1984 Jim Hunt ad featuring gun shots and photographs of dead bodies, which tied Helms to right-wing death squads in El Salvador.
In post-election interviews, Dole campaign advisers said the genesis of the commercial was a Dole campaign researcher spotting a posting on a liberal fundraising Web site, ActBlue. The posting announced a Hagan fundraiser at the Boston home of Woody Kaplan and Wendy Kaminer. Further checking revealed that both were leaders in the Secular Coalition for America, which advocates for atheists and humanists in public policy. Kaplan sits on the advisory board of the Godless American PAC, which advocates for nonbelievers.
The Dole campaign issued a new release in August saying Hagan's plans to attend the fundraiser showed she was “a Trojan horse for a long list of wacky left-wing outside groups.”
After Dole's criticism, Kaplan's and Kaminer's names were removed from the ActBlue invitation. Among the 10 chairmen/chairwomen of the fundraiser was U.S. Sen. John Kerry.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a film crew to Boston to film the event in case Hagan showed up.
“We thought no way would she actually show up,” Davis said. Hagan, a state senator from Greensboro, has declined to say why she attended the fundraiser.
That same evening, Sept. 15, Dole was attending a “God and Country” rally in New Bern sponsored by the Christian Coalition.
Film held for weeks
The Dole campaign chose not to use footage from the Boston fundraiser right away. They realized that dealing with religion was an incendiary issue that could backfire.
“It's not the kind of thing that would be your first choice to mold your campaign around,” Davis said.
Davis, a nationally known media consultant who did work for GOP presidential candidate John McCain, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and many other Republicans, is no stranger to controversial ads.
It was Davis who made the ad comparing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to celebrities Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. In 2002, Davis helped elect Republican Sonny Perdue governor of Georgia by casting Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes as a giant rat casting his shadow over the state.
Davis, whose office sits beneath the famous Hollywood sign, said he likes ads that draw sharp contrasts between the candidates.
As Dole continued to trail Hagan in the polls, the Dole campaign began to seriously consider using the Boston fundraiser in an ad.
“We had a D-Day date – the week before the election,” Davis said.
On D-Day, with Dole's internal tracking polls showing her 8 points behind Hagan, the decision was made to hastily produce what would become known as the “godless ad.” There was a conference call with eight to 10 senior Dole staffers, in which they argued about what the ad should say. Dole declined to discuss the ad for this story.
“There were a lot of versions of the ad,” Davis said. “Believe it or not, we ran the mildest version.”
The most controversial part of the ad was the end, when an unidentified woman off camera says, “There is no God,” with a photograph of Hagan on the screen. Davis said there was no intent to mislead people into thinking it was Hagan uttering the lines.
“The famous line at the end was added at the last second,” Davis said. “I'm not sure how it happened. I didn't do it. It was added by one of the team members.”
The ad ran only for 36 hours but immediately drew a sharp response from around the country.
“When you're making ads that say, ‘There is no God,' it usually means your campaign doesn't have a prayer,” Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant, told CNN. Castellanos created Helms' “white hands.”
Carter Wrenn, who was a chief Helms strategist, said he thought the Dole ad was over the top: “It was one of those things in a campaign where you are sleep-deprived and grumpy and you just sort of make a mistake.”
Marc Rotterman, a veteran GOP strategist, agreed that the ad was a mistake.
“It was a huge stretch and backfired on them,” Rotterman said. “It alienated her from moderate independents and potentially from evangelicals. … In my mind, it was political malpractice by Dole's advisers.”
Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, which did polling in all the major races in North Carolina, says his analysis showed that Hagan fared better than Democrats in other races among voters who cast their ballots on Election Day, after the ad had run.
“There is no doubt that running that ad hurt (Dole's) chances of re-election, and probably damaged her legacy in the process,” he said.
But Davis said he doubted that the ad hurt Dole. He said Dole did much better on Election Day than she had done during the early voting period.
“It will be argued for years,” Davis said. “But the facts show it worked. What we didn't know and what we now know is that she had already lost the election with the early voting.
“We had lost the election before ‘godless' had run.”