Republican Ad In Nebraska House Race Brings Up Memories Of Willie Horton

Everything old is new again.

Brad Ashford Nikko Jenkins Ad

A new campaign ad airing in a closely fought race in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District is bringing up memories of 1988’s “Willie Horton” ad, and leading some to accuse the National Republican Congressional Committee, which created the ad, of stoking racial fears the same way that twenty-six year old ad did:

The National Republican Campaign Committee is going up with a hard-hitting TV ad in Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district that links Democratic candidate Brad Ashford to a convicted felon who went on a savage killing spree in Omaha.

“Four murders in 11 days. The judge decides Nikko Jenkins is responsible for all of them,” a newscaster says in the opening moments of the ad, invoking the high-profile murder case that has gripped the Omaha community since 2013.

The ad will surely catch voters’ attention in the competitive district, where Ashford is fighting to unseat incumbent GOP Rep. Lee Terry. The ad puts a spotlight Jenkins’s early release for “good time” after he served just half of his 21-year prison sentence. Jenkins’s release came despite repeated displays of violent behavior while in prison, including assault on an officer.

“The head of the Omaha police union says Nikko Jenkins is the posterchild for why the ‘good time’ law is a farce,” says the narrator. “Brad Ashford supported the ‘good time’ law and still supports it, allowing criminals like Nikko Jenkins to be released early.”

The state GOP and Terry have repeatedly accused Ashford of neglecting sentencing laws as chairman of the judiciary committee in the state legislature, at times indirectly referring to the Jenkins case. The NRCC’s new ad, airing just two and a half weeks before the election, attempts to directly link Ashford’s work in the state legislature to Jenkins’s crimes.

The race is labeled as a “pure toss up” by the Rothenberg Political Report. The TV spot is backed by an initial $170,000 in the Omaha media market and will run on broadcast and cable, according to an NRCC spokesperson.

The reaction to the ad is about what you’d expect. The DCCC issued a statement calling the ad “repellent” and race-baiting.” Paul Waldman and Ed Kilgore both contrast the ad with the efforts of Senator Rand Paul to reach out to minority groups and his efforts on behalf of criminal sentencing reform, with both of them arguing that ads like this reveal where the GOP is really at far more than the Senator’s efforts. Even conservatives don’t seem to be rushing to defend the ad, though, as Greg Sargent points out:

[E]ven right-leaning news outlets are surprised at the ad’s tone. The Washington Examiner described it as “risky,” noting that it could invite comparisons to the “Willie Horton” ad against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, and open up the national GOP to the same sort of “similar accusations of playing with subtle racism” that greeted the Willie Horton spot.


Indeed, one GOP strategist made an interesting point to me about it: This is exactly the opposite of how Republicans should be talking about crime right now.

“Any idiot can use too much hot sauce — this is too much hot sauce,” GOP strategist Rick Wilson, who has been known to craft some very negative ads in his time, told me. “This is not as consequential in the long term as all that, but it’s a data point that people are going to throw back in your face to say, ‘You guys are using the scariest possible images in these ads.'”

“If we were smarter, we would be talking to African Americans about reforming the criminal justice system,” Wilson continued. “But I don’t think this ad is a step in that direction. African Americans actually do respond to messages about crime. This is a lost opportunity.”

To put the ad in context, it’s worth noting that the Nebraska 2nd includes both the city of Omaha and the areas surrounding it, but that it is overwhelmingly (roughly 83%) white while African-Americans make up roughly 10% of the population, and Latinos 6%, with other ethnic groups making up the remainder. Republican has Lee Terry has represented the District since 1999, however he faced a tough fight for re-election in 2012 and in 2008, the year in which President Obama won the District and gained a single electoral vote due to the manner in which Nebraska allocates its Electoral Votes. For those reasons, the race was considered a potential swing district heading into the midterms. As for the “Good Time” release law at issue in the ad, Ian Millhiser provides some background on that, as well as Jenkins himself:

Nikko Jenkins is a severely mentally ill man who was previously incarcerated on robbery and assault charges. A prison psychiatrist diagnosed him with schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and labeled him “one of the most dangerous people I have ever evaluated.” While he was incarcerated, Jenkins repeatedly told prison officials that he “planned a violent, murderous rampage upon his release.” Less than a month after he was released from prison in 2013, Jenkins carried out his threats, killing four people in Omaha.

Jenkins believes that he was ordered to kill by Apophis, an evil, ancient Egyptian serpent god. A report by the Nebraska State Ombudsman’s Office criticized state prison officials for not attempting to have Jenkins committed due to his mental illness once it became clear that it was not safe to release him from prison.

The NRCC’s ad, however, tells a very different story. In the GOP’s narrative, “Nikko Jenkins was released from prison early, after serving only half his sentence” thanks to a law that Ashford supports.

The law at issue is the state’s “good time” law, which has existed in various forms for nearly half a century. Under the good time law’s framework, prisoners earn “good time” for the time that they spend in prison, and this good time is counted against the time that they need to serve behind bars. Meanwhile, prisoners who commit various offenses can lose their good time — Jenkins for example, lost 18 months of good time for offenses that included an assault upon a prison guard. Thus, the law gives prison officials some flexibility to release inmates who behave well while incarcerated, while requiring other prisoners to serve more time.

Under a 1992 amendment to the good time law that overwhelmingly passed the state legislature, prisoners earn one day of good time for each day they spend in prison — that’s the likely basis for the GOP’s claim that Jenkins served “only half his sentence” (Ashford was a member of the state legislature when this amendment was enacted, but he was not present for the vote). In 2011, the state’s Republican Gov. Dave Heineman successfully lobbied the legislature to increase the amount of good time earned by inmates even further. This 2011 amendment was proposed by Heineman’s own Corrections Department. Ashford cosponsored this bill.

Millhiser certainly puts much more context to the issue, not only regarding Jenkins condition but also to the “Good Time” law, which was quite obviously something that was supported by members of both parties in Nebraska, including the state’s Republican Governor. Indeed, “good time” provisions with regard to jail and prison sentences is something that exists in many parts of the country. In some ways, the policy is intended as a way of encouraging prisoners to follow prison rules with a minimum of disruptive behavior, but it’s also intended to reduce prison crowding by getting people who are serving shorter sentences out by, well, shortening their sentences if they comply with certain behavior. It’s also not uncommon for prisoners to get credit for early release if they have cooperated with law enforcement in other criminal investigations, or with prison authorities in investigations of crimes in prison. Each state varies in terms of what the policy says and which crimes it applies to, but Nebraska is certainly not unique in having such a law and, as Millhiser argues, it certainly doesn’t appear that Ashford was the only, or even a major, force behind the passage of Nebraska’s version.

Here’s the video of the ad:

Just for comparison, here’s a video of the most infamous of the “Willie Horton” ads. for those of you who may have forgotten it:

This ad was aired by a Political Action Committee unaffiliated with the George H.W. Bush campaign. The Bush campaign had its own version of an ad that mention the Massachusetts furlough program, but it didn’t mention Horton by name, nor did it use his picture in the ad.

Leaving aside the stylistic differences, the themes of the two ads are fairly similar. In both cases, the ad seeks to tie its target to the release of a criminal who, upon release, went on to commit horrible crimes. In both cases, the criminal question is black and the targeted politician is a white Democrat. And, of course, in both cases we get the booming voice and the scary imagery, complete with scary pictures of the criminal in question. Willie Horton didn’t have tattoos all over his face like Nikko Jenkins does, but the message is basically the same. Support this Democratic candidate, it’s saying, and you’re supporting a guy who is in favor of releasing dangerous African-American criminals into your neighborhoods where he’s going to kill you. Just as in the Willie Horton case, of course, the ad is made to appeal to the public’s fear of crime and, not so subtly, to fears about race that remain just below the surface. And it does so in a format that makes any effort to have a rational discussion about the “Good Time” law that is the basis for the attack, nor does it even explain why Jenkins was even initially in jail or what circumstances led to his eligibility for early release. As with many similar political ads over the years, the ad is meant to appear to base emotions and, yes, racial prejudice, and there’s really no other way to describe that other than utterly despicable.

Finally, as Rick Wilson states in the quote above, the ad itself seems completely out of step with the times and in direct contradiction to the stated objectives by Republican leaders and politicians to reach out to minority groups. In many cases, those efforts are genuine, and Senator Paul’s efforts on issues like sentencing reform are to be commended. However, when an ad like this runs and get press attention nationwide, as the NRCC had to know that it would, it completely undercuts those efforts and reinforces the image of the Republican Party that already exists in the minds of minority groups and younger voters. Regardless of what happens in the Nebraska 2nd, that seems like a very high price to pay for one Congressional District.

FILED UNDER: 2014 Election, Congress, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Jenkins believes that he was ordered to kill by Apophis, an evil, ancient Egyptian serpent god.

    So, once again we have meddling by ancient foreign gods. If it’s not Apophis it’s Huitzilopoctli or Loki or that Hebrew storm god and his masochistic son. This is why religion and everything don’t mix.

  2. Modulo Myself says:

    @michael reynolds:

    In competent trustworthy hands, religious inspiration produces fine results:

    Now out of office, Chirac recounts that the American leader appealed to their “common faith” (Christianity) and told him: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

    This bizarre episode occurred while the White House was assembling its “coalition of the willing” to unleash the Iraq invasion. Chirac says he was boggled by Bush’s call and “wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs.”

  3. Mr. Prosser says:

    To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, Never underestimate the viciousness of the modern Republican party.

  4. Guarneri says:

    That’s nothing. Here in IL we have a murderer running for governor, “millionaire” Bruce Rauner, who kills nursing home patients for his own profit. How do I know this? His opponent, incumbent Pat Quinn, a reformer (snicker), ran ads telling me so.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    A Republican using race and fear? Shocking.
    The ad must have been produced before those two people came down with Ebola.
    I guess when you don’t have any real ideas…

  6. @C. Clavin:

    There’s not a lot of time between now and the election, but it wouldn’t take much studio work to produce an Ebola ad and get it up on the air in the last two weeks of the campaign. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two of them.

  7. CSK says:

    Some back story to the Willie Horton matter: He was furloughed from prison under a program that was initiated by Frank Sargent, the Republican governor of Massachusetts. The intent was to enhance the rehabilitation process of non-violent criminals. When Michael Dukakis took office, he broadened the program to include convicted murderers. The Massachusetts legislature then passed a bill denying furlough to murderers, but Dukakis vetoed it. Horton (who was and is a psychotic monster) was given furlough, and promptly fled to Maryland, where he attacked and confined a young couple (the man was beaten, stabbed, and tied up; the woman was beaten and repeatedly raped). He was captured in Maryland.

    After they had recovered from their injuries, the couple traveled to Massachusetts and asked to speak with Dukakis about the furlough program. Dukakis refused, saying, “I don’t see any point in talking to people.” That comment made headlines, and Dukakis was openly derided even by his supporters.

    There were several consequences of this, one of them being that the Massachusetts prison rehabilitation program suffered a setback.

  8. bill says:

    @Mr. Prosser: you haven’t seen wendy davis’s campaign ads yet? desperation defined!

    @C. Clavin: ironic, hillary seems to be basing her entire run on the “fear” of non existent issues like “voter suppression”, “women’s rights”and of course “the 1% vs the 99%”. yet she and her hubby are part of the 1% and laugh all the way to the bank. drink it up dude.

  9. JKB says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Of course, the ad could be produced for them by additional confirmed cases or a US soldier contracting the disease while on deployment to the infected countries.

    The “don’t panic” coming from the Democrats is because they see the Sword of Damocles hovering over their heads.

  10. JKB says:

    I wonder is their such an outbreak of crime in the district that such an ad would have an impact. Even as things falter, i don’t see the Willie Horton ad having the same impact it had when it was originally aired. Crime and the sense of general decline was in the air across the country after 2 decades of dystopia advancing in US cities. It is interesting to see how it permeated the culture in old first couple season Law and Order shows or late ’80s movies.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    How exactly are those issues non-existent?
    You may not care about them because you are a white male and have never known one moment of oppression in your lily white life…that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

  12. humanoid.panda says:

    @JKB: Serious question: do you think the US should not send troops to try and contain the epidemic? You don’t see how that is in the national interest? Do you see any scenario in which there are 5 million sick people in West Africa and US national interests are not severely impacted?

    Seriously, yes, if an American soldier gets sick in Liberia, the issue will be demagogued, and people like Rand (3,000 sick soldiers!) Paul will use it to great political advantage. This however will show one thing: that they, and, by extension you to the extent you are salivating about the prospect, are simply the scum of the earth.

  13. humanoid.panda says:

    @humanoid.panda:Or, let me put it to you this way: the prospect of an Iraqi nuclear bomb given to Al-Qaeda and being exploded in New York was the basis for the Iraq war. Isn’t the far, far, more likely prospect of Ebola becoming a mass plague in West Africa, getting to Asia, shutting global trade and plunging the world to a terrible, unprecedented economic crisis, is not worth attending to?

  14. michael reynolds says:


    The “don’t panic” coming from the Democrats is because they see the Sword of Damocles hovering over their heads.

    The don’t panic comes from the fact that we value facts, reality, science, and our country. You value ignorance, fear and hate.

  15. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Let’s bring back the Wendy Davis standard. You know — the one that so many cited before it turned out that Davis’ ad was grossly dishonest.

    Is the picture accurate? Yes.

    Are the facts accurate? Yes.

    So it’s a fair ad.

    Or, alternately, we can declare reality to be racist.

  16. Tyrell says:

    I would not put the blame for this on Mr. Ashford, but someone needs to be held accountable and responsible for letting this person out and the resulting horrible crimes. This was a person who had no capacity to take care of himself, let alone be roaming the streets searching for innocent victims. And since he planned this murderous rampage before he got out, it certainly casts a lot of doubt on any such insanity defense, usually a ploy now a days employed by lawyers . I know people who have mental health problems and they would never hurt a flea.
    I did not see in the article if this lunatic was captured, killed, or where he is now. He should have been given Dr. Lector’s old cell and this would never have happened.
    I am not sure about these so – called “credits for good behavior”, resulting in early release. Instead of letting them out early, other rewards and motivators could be used: better food, candy, stickers, magazine subscriptions, more tv privileges, maybe subscription radio. Violent criminals should not get out early. Maybe they should not get out at all.
    I do think that the whole justice system should look at who gets locked up. Heavier, longer sentences should be for violent, repeat criminals, gang members, and bank robbers. Alternative consequences, such as fines, community service, getting a degree, cleaning streets, should be given to pick pockets, shop lifters, cat burglars, parking violators, possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, and tax evaders. Often violent criminals are free, roaming the streets in search of new victims before their current victims are out of the hospital, if they are that lucky. Freed by sympathetic jurors, or some soft on crime judge.
    One other thought. I have nothing against tattoos. But I would suggest to young people considering a tattoo to not have it visible, especially covering your face like this guy did. I can tell you from experience in the workaday world that it will affect your career chances in a hugely negative way. And this is not some racial thing either.

  17. Grewgills says:

    and the calls to panic are from people who place political opportunism above public safety

  18. Gustopher says:

    Obviously, there are problems with the law or its implementation. We should be using a carrot to reward rehabilative behaviors, and a stick to punish poor behavior in prison, so the intent is right. We should also be separating the dangerously insane from the mere criminals, which clearly wasn’t done here.

    Ashford wasn’t the architect of the law, or responsible for implementing it, so this seems pretty weak on the facts.

    As far as the racism goes — were there no scary white people who got released and killed people? If they passed up the opportunity to show a half dozen people who were released and then killed to focus on the one black guy, then that’s clearly racist (and dumb, as a murderous horde is way scarier). But if this is the guy who exists… Sometimes reality confirms racists’ worst fears.

    Also, who the hell releases someone who covers their face in tattoos? Unless they are part of some tribe that does ritualistic tattoos, that’s clearly someone who is really messed up in the head and makes terrible decisions.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @Tyrell: I think part of the problem is that “good behavior” has been dumbed down to “not hurting people in jail”. That should be a baseline expectation, not something rewarded.

    Getting a GED, taking college level classes, doing a consistently good job in a prison-labor program… Things like that should be rewarded with time off the sentence, since they make it more likely that the inmate will be successful once they do get out.

  20. Gavrilo says:

    It’s racist to be afraid of mass murderers.

  21. Hal_10000 says:

    The facts in the ad might be accurate, but you simply can’t ignore the racial vibe in it. Especially as that precise racial vibe has given us a country where black are incarcerated at a higher rate than they were in South Africa under apartheid (and very often for non-violent crimes).

  22. JKB says:


    No, it is not a national security issue for the US. Humanitarian, maybe. But then we could send some Ivy kids to do their foreign volunteer work or something. That’d look great on the college app or resume.

    But what will be the killer is that the troops aren’t being provided anything more than masks and gloves

    Troops from the 101st Airborne Division leading the military response to Ebola in West Africa will only need gloves and masks to protect themselves from the deadly virus, so said Gen. David Rodriguez at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday.

    “They don’t need the whole suit – as such – because they’re not going to be in contact with any of the people,” the commander of U.S. troops in Africa said.

    Funny, in countries where people attack hospitals and health care workers. And, one presumes if they are living on Liberian defense ministry facilities there will be Liberians there?

    And I remember a lot of people on the Left making hay about the shortage of mine resistant vehicles early on in the War on Man-made Caused Disaster in Iraq. Not sending plastic suits that people can buy off the shelf seems to be bit more negligent.

  23. Tyrell says:

    @Hal_10000: Non – violent crimes can be handled with fines, community service, and other programs. This would include shop lifters, bad check writers, parking violators, pick pickets, tax evaders, those caught with small amounts of illegal drugs, and those who owe library book fines.
    The Willie Horton fiasco was not racist. It showed a big problem in the criminal justice system that still exists today. Violent criminals released to roam the streets in search of more victims. Dukakis should have acknowledged the failed system and recommended changes. Violent criminals should.never be released. Someone needs to be held accountable when this happens.
    But it isn’t racist to keep violent criminals behind bars.Those who hollar racism are trying to create a diversion.

  24. Eric Florack says:

    Ummm should we remind everyone who started the Willie Horton Meme?

    Al Gore.

  25. Grewgills says:

    The 101st is going their primarily to build hospitals. It would be idiotic to work on hospital construction wearing full hazmat gear. They are not dealing with late stage patients. Pretending this is an issue is either deliberate fear mongering or staggering ignorance.

  26. JKB says:


    Then none will contract the disease and all will be well for Obama and the Dems. But, if a soldier helps a pregnant woman into a taxi…

    No need to work in a secure area in full NBC gear, but if they must defend themselves from a mob,,,that tends to involve the release of bodily fluids, many time aerosolized.

  27. Grewgills says:

    If the pregnant woman the soldier helps into the cab is feverish and vomiting then said soldier might be in trouble if her bodily fluids are transferred.
    Late stage ebola patients are fatigued and feverish with vomiting and diarhea. The idea that they are likely to join mobs attacking soldiers building a hospital for them is far fetched to say the least.
    If the mission of the soldiers involves contact with symptomatic individuals, then they should have PPE.
    You are stretching.

  28. wr says:

    @JKB: Yes, and what if the zombie apocalypse happens there? Sure, there’s no real chance of that happening, but that’s no reason not to panic now! I’m a Republican and I’m afraid of everything!!!!

  29. wr says:

    @Grewgills: “Pretending this is an issue is either deliberate fear mongering or staggering ignorance.”

    Apparently you have never seen 28 Days Later, the scientific documentary from which all the right-wingers around here derive their superior knowledge.

  30. Eric Florack says:

    @michael reynolds: so too, by those lights, do the majority, else the Democrats wouldn’t be in trouble.

    No, Mike, the facts are your read here is, not unexpectedly, wrong.

    and should we point out that the Willie Horton meme was started by Al Gore?

  31. bill says:

    @C. Clavin: it’s 2014, the civil rights war ended long ago- despite the democrats objection to said rights. women are the majority in this country and treated better than they could be in any country on earth. “voter suppression” was a tool used by democrats long ago- it’s non-existent these days. forced segregation is also over, not that desegregation actually worked either. just as it’s hard to prove there’s voter fraud- it’s impossible to prove there’s voter suppression. like having to show an id to vote makes people uncomfortable?! get a grip.
    i like being white, i get to pay taxes…… and try to explain to my gf’s kids (they’re black) why they have to deal with the stigma of the past few generations of blacks who make them all look bad. it’s not fun but it’ll take a few generations to cleanse that mess- and it’s not going too well either.

  32. Rafer Janders says:


    women are the majority in this country and treated better than they could be in any country on earth.

    Yeah, suck it Sweden, Canada, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and France, with your income parity and year-long paid maternity leaves and generous social safety nets and maternity aide home-visits and free state-mandated pre-schools and free contraception and single-payer healthcare and all-around family-friendly policies. You’ll never match the US for…for…for….um….hold on, give me a minute….

  33. Rafer Janders says:


    forced segregation is also over, not that desegregation actually worked either.

    Um, if desegregation didn’t work, then how is forced segregation over?

    I love the contortions the right-wing mind must engage in: “no, we never discriminated, and anyway, we stopped discriminating a long time ago!”

  34. grumpy realist says:

    @bill: Boy, are YOU ignorant! I suggest you look at what’s available for women in some of the Nordic countries.