It Hasn’t Worked in the Past, But the GOP Is Trying Again With Racially Charged Attacks on Tim Kaine Over His Opposition to the Death Penalty

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Tim Kaine and Pope Francis are opposed to the death penalty. Horrors!Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In anticipation of this evening’s vice-presidential debate, the Republican National Committee has launched a nasty little web ad attacking Tim Kaine’s opposition to the death penalty, which will bring back a lot of memories.

As Roll Call notes, the current ad has some similarities to the notorious Willie Horton spot run by George H.W. Bush in 1988. In this ad, Kaine is taken to task for actions he took as governor that avoided the death penalty for heinous-sounding criminals. But it also takes the deeply cynical approach of attacking the Virginian for defending heinous criminals while he was a criminal-defense lawyer. The ad does not, of course, come out and call for the repeal of the sixth amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing the right to legal counsel. But that is the implication: Anyone whose client is a bad guy must be a bad guy.

But there is another and more interesting respect in which the RNC ad is a blast from the past: In the 2005 Virginia governor’s race, Kaine’s Republican opponent, Jerry Kilgore (no relation), made a big deal out of Kaine’s representation of accused murderers and his opposition to the death penalty, making it a symbol of Kaine’s alleged non-Virginia values. In one notorious ad, the father of a victim of a Kaine client tells voters that the Democrat’s opposition to the death penalty would extend to someone like Adolf Hitler.

Kaine counter-punched very effectively with an ad noting that the same religious faith (he’s a highly observant Catholic) that made him oppose the death penalty would also compel him to obey the oath of office as governor requiring him to administer the death penalty despite his personal opposition. It was a winning argument, not only neutralizing Kilgore’s attacks but buttressing Kaine’s already-strong reputation as a pol with an unusual degree of integrity.

So color me surprised the RNC went back to the same tactic of racially tinged death-penalty politics against Tim Kaine. It’s not likely to work. And it could even help reinforce an unwelcome contrast between the steady Catholic Kaine and the ex-Catholic Mike Pence. But maybe they just can’t help themselves.