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11.03.08

Liddy Dole's Last Stand

Once part of the most powerful couples in Washington, Elizabeth Dole is fighting for her political future in a dirty race that has left her appearing unfair and unscrupulous.

Elizabeth Dole has been a fixture of the Republican political establishment ever since 1969, when President Nixon appointed her to head his US Office of Consumer Affairs. In 1975 she married the Republican senator from Kansas, and Bob and “Liddy” Dole became Washington’s premier Republican power couple. These days they rank just behind the Cheneys and ahead of the McConnell-Chaos.

Almost 40 years and nine lives later, Liddy Dole—Reagan’s secretary of transportation, Bush I’s secretary of labor, president of the American Red Cross, 2000 presidential candidate, wife of the Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, and senator from North Carolina—is in the fight for her political life.

As Election Day dawns, the Dole Dynasty may be coming to an ignominious end.

If Dole doesn’t win tonight, her long, distinguished career will be tainted not just for losing a race she should have won, but for going down in flames of biblical proportions because of a hypocritical God-squad attack ad.

What happened to Liddy Dole? The 72-year-old first term senator looked like she was cruising easily toward re-election early this summer, and her seat had been declared safe by the national pundits and politicos in North Carolina. Her opponent, a 55-year-old state senator and former Bank of America executive, Kay Hagan, was behind in every poll (often by double digits) until mid-August.

But as the economy began to melt down and Barack Obama’s star rose, local polls began to show Dole and Hagan neck and neck. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee smelled blood and started pumping more and more money into the state to turn this seat, which had been a Republican stronghold (Dole replaced Jesse Helms) for 35 years. By September, Dole trailed Hagan in two out of three polls. By the end of October, Hagan began to pull ahead with a consistent three- to five-point lead.

“Everybody is flabbergasted,” Republican political consultant Ballard Everett told me. “The Democrats came in early with Hagan ads and caught the Dole campaign totally off-guard. The Dole campaign, like everyone else, thought her re-election would be a slam dunk.”

This change in political fortune is particularly shocking when compared to Dole’s 2002 electoral debut. She trounced her Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff Erskine Bowles, 54 percent to 45 percent. Dole was an obvious carpetbagger. She moved in with her 100-year-old mother in Salisbury, N.C., after living inside the Beltway for 42 years so she could register to vote and run for Senate. But her recent repatriation didn’t seem to bother North Carolinians.

Despite Dole’s Washington gravitas and overwhelming electoral mandate, Kay Hagan managed to find her weak spots and hammer away at them. She linked Dole to our unpopular president (Dole voted with Bush 88 percent to 92 percent of the time, depending on whom you talk to). Hagan tarred Dole with being a Washington insider who rarely visited North Carolina (20 days in ’05 and 13 in ’06, according to DSCC records). Hagan ridiculed Dole for being Washington’s 93rd most effective senator, a label levied by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

One of Hagan’s ads even insinuated that Dole (who is 72; Bob, by the way, is 85) is getting too old for the job. Meanwhile, it was beginning to look as if Dole might be a victim not just of demographic (more high-tech, black, and Hispanic voters) changes in North Carolina, but of the nation’s shifting political landscape—one that has put this reliably Republican state in the toss-up column.

Elizabeth Dole has a signature syrupy-sweet Southern drawl. Her voice is deep and soft, her manners impeccably ladylike (I covered her when she was labor secretary). She never has a hair or a pearl out of place, but falling behind an unknown state senator (how many honorary doctorate degrees does Hagan have? Dole has 40. How many presidents did Hagan serve? Dole served five) must have flustered her.

Last week Dole let the white shoe drop and her campaign ran the now infamous “Godless” ad. The spot describes a fundraiser Hagan attended in Boston that was co-hosted (along with Senator John Kerry and 40 others) by Woody Kaplan, a civil liberties activist and member of the advisory board of the Godless Americans PAC, which advocates separation of church and state.

Even though the PAC did not give to Hagan, the Dole campaign spun out an ad associating Hagan (who is a church elder and Sunday school teacher) with the godless group. “Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?” The crescendo: a picture of Hagan with a female voiceover that could easily be confused with Hagan’s voice, saying, “There is no God.”

The ad became a YouTube sensation and was immediately derided by political commentators as sleazy and desperate. Hagan sued Dole for slander, called for a cease-and-desist order (the ad was eventually pulled) and in the most effective rebuttal of all, accused Dole of violating the Ninth Commandment for “bearing false witness” against a “fellow Christian.” In other words, lying.

Then the backlash ensued, further digging Dole into a hole. Ed Rollins told CNN the ad was “despicable, and so unlike Elizabeth Dole. She should be ashamed of herself.” What’s worse for Dole, the ad is expected to push undecided voters into Hagan’s camp. “It turned off a lot of people,” Ballard Everett observed. “Folks are disappointed in Elizabeth Dole. She always appeared to be a very classy, sharp lady. Why she would approve that ad I’m not sure, but it may be the one that really helps put Kay Hagan over the top.”

If Dole doesn’t win tonight, her long, distinguished career will be tainted not just for losing a race she should have won, but for going down in flames of biblical proportions because of a hypocritical God-squad attack ad.

Clara Bingham is the author of Women on the Hill: Challenging the Culture of Congress and co-author of Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law.