Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich’s campaign is pulling a brutal attack ad accusing Republican opponent Dan Sullivan of allowing an alleged murderer and rapist to get off with a light sentence after criticism from a lawyer representing the victims' families.
The family's attorney, Bryon Collins, excoriated Begich over the television commercial.
“You are tearing this family apart to the point that your ad was so shocking to them they now want to permanently leave the state as quickly as possible,” Collins wrote in a blistering letter that went on to accuse Begich of “playing pure politics at the expense of my clients.”
Collins also demanded that Sullivan take down a response ad, which his campaign is doing as well.
According to a spokesman for Begich's campaign, his staff had reached out to family members of the victim as well as members of their Cambodian community in Anchorage before running the ad and received no indication anyone objected to its content. Nonetheless, they are honoring Collins' request and trying to determine how the miscommunication happened.
Collins had previously told the Washington Examiner that his clients did not respond to messages from the campaign and never gave permission to run the ad. He repeated the claim in a statement on Tuesday night and suggested other individuals purporting to speak for the family may be creating confusion.
"I have a copy of the only text message regarding contact with my client on behalf [of the] Begich campaign asking if Begich campaign could contact my clients," Collins said. "No one from the campaign called my clients or discussed the ads with them prior to running them. It appears someone other than my office is attempting to speak for the family without authorization. The family requests that this stop immediately."
It’s an ugly turn for Begich, who has generally been credited by political observers with running an exceptionally strong Senate campaign in a difficult re-election race.
The Begich ad centered around Jerry Active, a convicted sex offender now charged with murdering an elderly man and woman and sexually assaulting their 2-year old granddaughter. Active had previously served time after pleading guilty to sexually abusing an 11-year old, but the attorney general’s office later admitted that the sentence should have been significantly longer under state guidelines because he had a prior felony conviction.
The Begich campaign argued that Sullivan, who was attorney general at the time of the plea deal, bore responsibility for the mistake and that it was part of a larger pattern. In Begich's commercial, a retired police officer stands by the scene of the crime and tells the viewer that “a lot of sex offenders get off with light sentences” under Sullivan.
Sullivan countered that the ad was “shameful and deceitful” and that the error that resulted in Active's shortened sentence was made before he assumed office. The attack drew comparisons to President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Willie Horton ad, which accused then-opponent Michael Dukakis of letting Horton commit rape while free on a furlough program Dukakis supported as governor of Massachusetts.
Collins not only demanded that Begich pull the ads for the family's emotional health, but because they were “directly interfering with the prosecution” by exposing potential jurors to details about the case. Collins rejected an initial attempt by Begich’s campaign to edit the ads to remove details of the specific case, instead insisting they be taken down entirely.
In a statement, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brooke Hougeson told reporters that "[Begich's] indifference to the victims of this horror raises questions about his basic values."
A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Justin Barasky, criticized Sullivan for directly referencing Active, saying in a statement that he "shamefully named an open criminal case in his response ad and has since been forced to pull the ad off the air." But Collins, in his letter, argued that Sullivan's ad was less damaging as "he did not cross the line directly into material facts of the case," while Begich's featured footage of the crime scene.
Alaska isn’t the only state to feature a controversial ad about an individual crime this cycle. Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor in Texas, has attacked Republican opponent Greg Abbot for dissenting as Texas Supreme Court Justice in a 1998 case in which a rape victim sued a vacuum company for hiring the salesman who assaulted her. Davis did not consult with the victim before running the ad.