Is this ad a dog whistle?

raga ad
Screen shot from Republican Attorneys General Association website attacking Democratic candidate for Nevada attorney general Aaron Ford.

The Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) has claimed a past arrest and incident of public intoxication means state Sen. Aaron Ford does not have the “qualifications to be Nevada’s top cop.” However, four years ago, Adam Laxalt’s past DUI didn’t stop RAGA from supporting his candidacy.

The organization has launched a campaign offensive against Ford saying the candidate is unqualified for office because of arrests during the early 90s.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in July that while Ford was a college student he was arrested for public intoxication, failing to appear in court twice and stealing tires — Ford made restitution in the last charge and the case was dismissed. That history is the inspiration of RAGA’s 15-second ad as well as a website.

Neither the ad nor the website mentions that Ford, 46, was in his late teens and early 20s when the offenses occurred in Texas. “We cited all the sources, so if people click on the stories they will see all this information,” says Zack Roday, a spokesman for the Republican Attorneys General Association. “We didn’t omit anything.”

Bringing up Ford’s history is “absolutely relevant,” he adds. When repeatedly asked about the difference between Ford’s youthful offenses and Laxalt’s, Roday shifted the subject to separate issues that are not mentioned in RAGA’s ad and website.    

Like Ford, Laxalt, who is currently running for governor, was arrested during college. Laxalt was taken in for a DUI in 1997.

In July 2014, the Republican Attorneys General Association sent out a news release asking people to support state AG candidates, including Laxalt. The RAGA Nevada PAC also contributed $10,000 to his campaign.

Roday says he wasn’t aware of Laxalt’s background and wasn’t with the organization when it endorsed the candidate.

Ford’s campaign did not comment on the content of the RAGA ad. The campaign sent the same statement to the Current Monday that Ford gave to the Review-Journal: College students make poor decisions at times, and “I’ve grown from these. It’s part of what makes me so passionate for what I fight for. I don’t want the first 20 years of my life to be the judge of what’s happened the last 25 years of my life.”

Referencing an “alcohol-fueled fight” that Laxalt has acknowledged, Laura Martin, a spokeswoman with PLAN Action, asked in a twitter post “Why are white men considered redeemable but Black men are not? What do you call that?”

“Laxalt was driving under the influence and could have killed someone,” Martin says.

There is a long history of using coded language to appeal to a target audience — known as dog-whistle politics. People of color running for office have often been subjected to this tactic when attack ads use terms that paint them as violent, lazy or having “run-ins with the law.”

Martin says the ad by the Republican group uses language that fits the definition.

“They create these boogeymen with people of color, then they become Stevie Wonder when non-people of color commit acts of violence,” Martin said. “It’s racist to think a nonviolent record from 20 years ago disqualifies you, but someone who was drinking and driving, who also had a 1.0 GPA, is somehow qualified. There is only one difference between them.”

The Democratic Attorneys General Association says while people could see it as a racial dog whistle, they see it as something else.

“This is more of a distraction from the issues voters care about,” says Lizzie Ulmer, a spokeswoman with the Democratic Attorneys General Association. “RAGA has a tough map this election, so this is an example of them playing defense. They resort to this tactic when it’s convenient.”

Ford faces off against Republican Wes Duncan in November.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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