Republicans accused of 'race-baiting' for running ad on black convict murderer

Democrats are accusing Republicans of “race-baiting” for running an ad in a Nebraska House race that highlights the case of a black convict who murdered four people within weeks of being released from prison.

The ad, which blasts Democratic candidate Brad Ashford for supporting a law that allows early prison release, already is drawing comparisons to one of the most controversial political ads in modern history – the so-called “Willie Horton” ad.

But Republicans are standing by it, and refusing to bow to Democratic pressure to take down the ad.

“Brad Ashford should apologize to the victim’s families for supporting a reckless law that releases violent criminals after only serving half of their original prison sentences,” said Tyler Q. Houlton, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Nebraska voters deserve to know that Brad Ashford supports policies that have made them less safe.”

The ad, run by the NRCC, highlights the case of Nikko Jenkins, who was released early last year after serving a decade in prison for robbery and assault charges.

Within days, he murdered four people in Omaha.

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The ad begins with footage of a menacing-looking Jenkins -- whose face is heavily tattooed -- yelling at the cameras, as a news broadcast states: “Four murders in 11 days.”

The narrator follows: “Nikko Jenkins was released from prison early after serving only half his sentence. The head of the Omaha police union said Jenkins is the poster child for why the ‘Good Time’ law is a farce. Brad Ashford supported the ‘Good Time’ law and still defends it, allowing criminals like Nikko Jenkins to be released early.”

The ad ends with side-by-side headshots of Jenkins and Ashford. Ashford, a state senator, is challenging Nebraska Republican Rep. Lee Terry for his House seat.

Democrats immediately pounced on the ad.

“This repellent, race-baiting ad has no place in America, and national Republicans should apologize and take it down immediately,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Ashley Lewis said in a statement. “Republicans should be ashamed that they have resorted to divisive rhetoric, playing up racial stereotypes and fear-mongering to save their sinking candidate.”

Several liberal-leaning websites also decried the ad as “race-baiting,” “unspeakably racist” and in the style of the infamous Willie Horton attack ad.

The latter ad was run by a conservative group in the 1988 presidential race and highlighted the case of convicted felon Willie Horton – who raped a woman while on a weekend furlough. The ad faulted Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts when Horton was furloughed.

In the case of Jenkins, he – like other prisoners in the state – benefited from Nebraska’s “Good Time” law. The policy gives inmates a day’s credit for every day served, while docking them credits for bad behavior. This effectively can reduce a prisoner’s sentence by half.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, Jenkins served half of his 21-year sentence. But the early-release law wasn’t the only factor at play in his case. He had a history of threats and signs of mental illness while in prison. One state report at the time, according to the World-Herald, said Jenkins threatened to go on a murder spree when he was released, and the state ombudsman said he should have been committed.

A law giving additional “good time” to inmates who behaved previously had been signed by the state’s Republican Gov. Dave Heineman. After the Jenkins murder spree, however, the governor sought to make the law tougher for violent inmates to get out early.

Ashford was among the state lawmakers who pushed back against those changes.

The $170,000 NRCC ad is running in Omaha.