- - Tuesday, July 15, 2014

When it comes to political dirty tricks, what is happening in Mississippi is not staying in Mississippi. I know, because the race card was played just as blatantly in 2000 in Missouri with one difference: Back then it was the traditional, bigoted Democratic Party that acted so badly; this time it looks like it was members of my party, the party of Lincoln, the Republicans.

The 2000 election in Missouri was extraordinary for many reasons. We had an open governor’s race with an incumbent statewide Democratic elected official facing off against popular Rep. Jim Talent and a heated U.S. Senate race pitting incumbent John Ashcroft against sitting Gov. Mel Carnahan in a swing state that drew tons of presidential attention. (Missouri went for Jimmy Carter in ‘76, Ronald Reagan in ‘80 and then George H.W. Bush in ‘88 and Bill Clinton in ‘92 and ‘96.)

The campaigning was wild and intense, with more money spent on the airwaves in Kansas City and St. Louis than ever before. A judge held the St. Louis polls open late into the evening so that more people could vote with an Al Gore-recorded robocall hitting voters’ homes just moments after the judge’s decision. (It was later discovered that dead people and at least one dog were on the voter rolls, leading Congress to enact the Help America Vote Act).

However, what many Republicans remember to this day is the extraordinary racial vitriol employed by Missouri Democrats unleashed in the final days of that campaign. They played the race card with abandon. Warnings that a Republican victory would mean a revival of racism and a “return” to the dark days of the pre-Civil Rights era were staples of Democratic radio and TV ads. The left used fear, hate and the worst kinds of racial prejudice to try to turn out the vote against Republicans. (The best summary of that time was “The simplest ‘outreach’: Ask black Americans for their votes, for heaven’s sake” by Ramesh Ponnuru and Richard Nadler in the March 5, 2001 edition of National Review).

Supporters of Carnahan used especially racially divisive ads against Sen. Ashcroft. Mr. Ashcroft’s opposition to the federal district court nomination of Ronnie White, a former state legislator and Missouri judge, was used to imply that a vote for Mr. Ashcroft was a vote to move the community backward. (Judge White’s nomination failed, but President Obama recently asked the U.S. Senate to confirm him. The nomination is pending.)

Missouri Republicans and outside observers alike were appalled by the horrendous racial targeting that characterized the 2000 election. We protested loudly and vigorously, but to no avail. Mr. Talent lost his race for governor by a close margin, George W. Bush barely beat Mr. Gore, and Mr. Ashcroft lost to Mr. Carnahan, even though the governor had died before Election Day. (We felt some measure of recovery when Mr. Ashcroft was nominated for U.S. attorney general, although the Democrats made race a part of his confirmation.)

This brings us to Mississippi and the hard-fought U.S. Senate primary that divided Republicans there this year. The hardball tactics that dominated the race early were to be expected, but the final days turned ugly as supporters of an incumbent senator who apparently thought their candidate was losing began to act more like old Democrats than 21st-century Republicans. They suggested that a vote for the other candidate would amount to a racist act. I heard ads and robocalls by a third party that crossed the line of decency and reminded me of what had happened in Missouri back in 2000. The race card was played with a vengeance, including language that fraudulently linked the Ku Klux Klan to one candidate while branding Tea Partyers in general as racist. It was as bad as any of the stuff that Democrats ran against Mr. Talent, Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Bush in Missouri in 2000. As I heard what was being broadcast in a Republican primary in Mississippi, I was shocked. We seemed to have stooped to using the discredited tactics of old Southern Democrats who would do anything to win.

I am a proud to be a member of the Republican Party, and I am proud of our platform, our principles and our history. As chairman of the Missouri Republican Party and a member of the Republican National Committee, I believe we are at a crossroads in our party. Either we are a party founded on the principle that every man and woman is a gift of a Creator and worthy of our respect and protection, or, we are a party of power over principle, which will stoop to any low to maintain or gain power.

Last week, I asked Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, to lead a fact-finding effort to get to the bottom of the racially divisive ads and robocalls. If we find out that they were produced, paid for and deployed by Republicans — as it seems likely — we should hold those Republicans accountable. No matter who they are.

Ed Martin is chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.