Explained: Why The RNC Briefly Tweeted About Its New 'Willie Horton-Style' Ad

Always check your tweets before you send them.

The Republican National Committee released an ad Monday that attacks Virginia senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine for his record as a pro bono defense attorney and staunch opponent of the death penalty.

The ad accuses Kaine of “consistently protecting the worst kinds of people” ― that is, the violent offenders whom Kaine represented in court, or on whose behalf he interceded as governor of Virginia.

Roll Call wrote up the RNC’s video with the rather unusual headline “Exclusive: Republicans Launch Willie Horton-Style Attack on Kaine” ― alluding to an infamous 1988 attack ad, known as “Weekend Passes,” that Republicans ran against then-Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. “Weekend Passes” drew a line from Dukakis to William Horton, a convicted murderer, in an attempt to paint Dukakis as soft on crime. The ad today is generally remembered for setting a new standard in racist dog whistles.

Here’s the thing: The RNC’s attack ad on Kaine isn’t actually all that similar to the 1988 spot. “Weekend Passes” focused exclusively on Horton, an African-American man, and the weekend furloughs he’d received from prison during Dukakis’ time in the Massachusetts state house. This new ad against Kaine, meanwhile, seems to go out of its way to avoid the same racial signaling. Of the four malefactors named in the ad, only one, Percy Levar Walton, is black.

You can compare the two ads for yourself.

Whatever similarities the ads might have in common, there are obviously a number of differences here. So it was confusing when Sean Spicer, the RNC’s chief strategist and communications director, initially drew attention to the comparison on Twitter.

Spicer’s original tweet, above, contains the language that auto-generates from Roll Call when you use its “tweet this story” button to share the article on Twitter. Spicer has since deleted that tweet, and replaced it with the complaint he may have wanted to register in the first place:

It took the GOP’s official Twitter account a little bit longer to remove its own version of the tweet. But sure enough, eventually, down it came.

The Huffington Post can confirm that RNC officials objected to the way Roll Call framed the ad as a “Willie Horton-style attack.”

”This ad, pure and simple, has to do with Tim Kaine’s record, and anyone who would watch it would see that,” Spicer told HuffPost when reached for comment. “It’s as if the reporter at Roll Call didn’t look at the ad, or doesn’t know history.”

While we’re talking about not looking at things: This can maybe serve as a gentle reminder, to political communications professionals or whoever else, that once you click that “share this story with your followers” button, it’s best practices to check whether the text that was just generated matches the message you wish to send.


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.