While biting ads flood TV screens in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race, a quieter but no less inflammatory campaign is targeting one segment of voters – African-Americans.
Radio ads invoking the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and abortions by African-American women are playing on black-oriented stations as both sides play to the emotions of black voters.
Meanwhile, a conservative group took to cable TV Tuesday telling black viewers that by supporting Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, they’ve “only traded one plantation for another.”
And in a paradox, while Republicans are pushing hard to tie Hagan to President Barack Obama, so are Democrats – at least on stations whose audiences are predominantly African-American.
The campaign within a campaign is aimed at one of Hagan’s most important constituencies. She’s counting on a high turnout of black voters in a race in which new polls show her tied with Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis.
Funded largely by independent groups, the ads continue to reflect the clout of outside money in the nation’s most expensive Senate contest.
An ad by the Senate Majority Fund, a group tied to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, sparked a backlash. On Tuesday, an independent group started ads on conservative and country stations accusing Democrats of “shamelessly race baiting.”
The Senate Majority ad, running on black-oriented radio, tries to link Tillis to the death of Trayvon Martin. He was the Florida teenager whose 2012 killing prompted nationwide protests and a debate over so-called Stand Your Ground laws.
“Tillis even led the effort to pass the kind of Stand Your Ground laws that caused the shooting death of Trayvon Martin,” the ad says.
That was a reference to a 2011 bill supported by Tillis and other Republicans and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.
On Tuesday, American Commitment, a conservative nonprofit whose major backers include a New York hedge fund manager, went on 40 country and conservative stations with an ad that starts with clips of the Senate Majority spot.
“Have you heard this race-hustling Kay Hagan ad paid for by Harry Reid’s super PAC?” a narrator asks. “Probably not. Because they’re not running it on this station. … Desperate to hold on to power, Obama, Reid and Hagan are shamelessly race-baiting. … Don’t let the race hustlers win.”
Meanwhile, the committee to draft conservative Ben Carson, a retired African-American neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital who is weighing a presidential bid, has attacked Hagan on urban radio.
“Does Kay Hagan care that 1 out of 3 babies aborted in America are black?” a narrator asks.
“The future of our community is being killed off,” a woman chimes in. “… Question for Sen. Hagan: Why should we vote for you when you don’t even want our babies?”
The Carson committee is running an identical ad in Louisiana, substituting the name of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu for that of Hagan. Landrieu is locked in a tough re-election race.
And a group called Our America, funded largely by a Minnesota businessman, has started a cable TV ad in Charlotte and Raleigh that invokes slavery.
“Black people are just being used by limousine liberals who have become our new overseers,” says narrator Elbert Guillory, a Louisiana lawmaker. “We’ve only traded one plantation for another. You are not Kay Hagan’s cause. … You are just a vote. She has stepped off your backs to fame and fortune and left you behind on food stamps.”
Meanwhile, the Hagan campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are on black radio with ads suggesting a vote for Hagan is a vote for Obama. Tillis has made the same argument even as Hagan has sought to publicly distance herself from the president.
“If we don’t stop Thom Tillis and the Republicans,” a narrator says, “it will be two more years of stopping our president from making progress.”
Hot-button appeals are nothing new, especially in the closing days of an election. On Monday, WBTV, the Observer’s news partner, reported some voters received a flier showing an African-American kneeling with hands up as two police officers stand behind. The caption: “This won’t ever end. Until we vote.”
“Independent expenditures are exploiting African-American hardships for political gain,” said Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat and former head of the Black Political Caucus. “As African-American voters, we have to be smarter to understand our issues and vote according to what’s important to us.”
Polls show black voters support Hagan overwhelmingly. The question is, how many will vote?
In 2010, African-Americans accounted for 20 percent of overall turnout. Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, said black voters have to compose up to 23 percent of the electorate for Hagan to win.
“If this is indeed a down-to-the-wire finish, as it looks in the polling, the Democrats need a slightly better performing black voting performance than four years ago to counter what is traditionally a more-GOP electorate than in presidential years,” Bitzer said.
Through Sunday, Democrats say, African-Americans made up 24 percent of early voters.
Asked about the Senate Majority’s Trayvon Martin ad Tuesday, Tillis said “the Hagan campaign is grasping at straws.” Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said, “Kay believes that we need a dialogue … about these issues (race), but she doesn’t believe it’s productive or right to inject election-year politics into that dialogue.”
Paula McClain, a Duke University political scientist who supports Hagan, said many of the appeals to black voters won’t work.
“People tend to underestimate the level of sophistication of black voters,” she said. “Black voters are very sophisticated in 2014, and they have been for several decades. They’re not swayed by these simple-minded approaches.”