Reading Time: 4 minutes

Remember a couple months ago when the North Carolina Senate race was in full swing? It was Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan.

To many outside NC, Hagan was a relatively unknown figure — that is, until Dole’s campaign put out a press release saying she was promoting atheist values and had attended a fundraiser at the home of atheists. They later ran a TV ad saying the same thing.

Hagan was a Sunday School teacher who attended a fundraiser typical of any political candidate. While it happened to be at the home of atheists, the fundraiser had nothing to do with atheism.

The attack ads were pathetic and eventually Hagan won the election. Were the two things related?

Marty Ryall, the campaign manager for Elizabeth Dole’s Senate reelection campaign, says they were not. He has a troubling piece at Politics Magazine where he discusses why the campaign used the ads and how they were not the reason Dole lost the race.

Many in the media, especially on the liberal side, were quick to point to the ad and claim it backfired, costing Dole the election. Nothing could be further from the truth. When a football team is trailing by 7 points and throws a “Hail Mary” on the last play of the game, they don’t lose because they failed to complete the play, they lose because they were down 7 points and time was running out.

There were several scripts and drafts that were discussed. But we still hoped to avoid using it, because we knew the risk of backlash was very high. With about eight days left in the campaign, we were down 6 points and underperforming the Republican presidential nominee by 4 points. We were tracking nightly and when respondents were asked what they had seen or heard about the campaign it was all about our lack of effectiveness and the amount of time spent in the state.

We were on a losing trajectory and we had to change the topic of discussion. The only option we had that could accomplish that was an ad on the Godless Americans PAC issue.

We had polled the issue in mid-September and found that it tested very well among the key groups that we needed to win. We needed to raise intensity among Republican voters, as well as shift the focus of Independents and conservative Democrats from our negatives to Kay Hagan in an unfavorable way. We needed something that had some shock value and would also generate an earned media component—and that was the “Godless” issue.

He also mentions that they never intended to make Hagan sound like she was saying “There is no God” in the ad… (They only played atheist Ellen Johnson‘s voice while a picture of Hagan was on the screen — How on earth would that be confusing?!):

The first draft of the “Godless” ad had a picture of Kay Hagan at the end with a graphic that read “What was she thinking?” and a voiceover that said “There is no God.” I objected to that because it looked like we were answering the question for her, and that she was thinking there is no God. The group agreed. The next version dropped the graphic, but still had the voice saying, “There is no God.” The voice in the ad is the executive director of the Godless American’s PAC on a TV appearance with Bill O’Reilly.

It was never an attempt to fake Kay Hagan’s voice, or imply that she thinks there is no God. The intention was to provide an exclamation to the ad, showing how radical this group is. In hindsight, that voiceover should not have been in the ad. It gave her another avenue of counter-attack to discredit it.

Hagan ran a response ad, as we anticipated, claiming that we were attacking her faith, along with the charge that we faked her voice. That second charge took some credibility away from our attack. There are those who have argued the impact of this ad on the outcome of the election. It was minimal, if any at all.

In all, Ryall says the ad had no impact on the race.

That’s debatable… Hagan’s numbers began surpassing Dole’s just as the ads began airing. Either way, the ads didn’t help Dole as the campaign had hoped they would.

But the ads will have a shelf life much longer than the 2008 elections. Future candidates will have to think twice before they use atheism as a means of attack against an opponent. The ad also got many atheists politically active over an issue that affects them personally. I don’t remember that ever happening before.

There no apology from Ryall for using atheism to tear down his opponent. (Had he said Hagan was a lesbian, I imagine GLBT groups would still be up in arms and Dole’s campaign would have been forced to apologize a long time ago.) His only regret seems to be that the ads were not aired sooner in the campaign.


Paul Fidalgo, the DC Secularism Examiner, sums it up well:

I very much want a new generation of atheist politicians to emerge and to begin to run for offices at all levels, win or lose (and for a while at least, lose and lose and lose). It’s the only way we’ll begin to ease our way into the public consciousness, getting believers used to the idea of atheists in elected positions of power. But as Ryall’s heartless recollection of the Dole campaign reminds me, atheists aren’t even allowed to be near politicians, let alone count themselves among them. The hill is steeper than I sometimes allow myself to believe.

So we best get climbing.