A Florida state senator running for re-election is getting called out for a recent campaign mailer sent out by a Democratic campaign committee that features an image of her Republican opponent on a shooting target with empty shell casings scattered on the ground below; a picture that critics say not only hearkens back to the days of Jim Crow but may have violated state campaign finance laws.
Sen. Loranne Ausley represents a pretty blue district in the Florida panhandle; one that went for Joe Biden by 9-points over Donald Trump in the 2020 election. The recent mailer has the potential to upend the race, however, according to political consultant Peter Schorsch, who recently devoted an entire column at Florida Politics calling out Ausley for the ad and other Democrats in the state for not condemning its troubling imagery.
It doesn’t matter what the message is — in this case shining a light on the GOP’s opposition to gun control measures and her opponent’s guilt by association — the imagery smacks of racism at worst and a serious level of tone deafness at best.
The mailer supporting Ausley’s re-election shows Republican challenger Corey Simon on a shooting target, the photo in black and white with shell casings littered below it.
David Pilgrim, the founder of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Michigan, put it well. He noted the U.S. has a “long and sad history of using Blacks as targets,” according to City & State Florida. That’s not just figurative. Over the summer photographs surfaced of police officers in Michigan using images of Black men on targets for shooting practice.
… Fellow Democrats, especially Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book who leads the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee that paid for the ad, should condemn — if not the words — the imagery on the mailer, which also depicted school-aged children on shooting targets.
And Ausley needs to step up. So far she has pivoted away from the ad, arguing she didn’t approve it. That’s either not true, or the ad violated election law, which requires candidate approval for third-party advertisements supporting them. The committee behind the mailer says it was approved, contradicting Ausley’s own assertion.
Most of the legacy media has yet to report on this story for some reason, though it’s not hard to imagine the firestorm of controversy that would have erupted if the roles had been reversed and it was Republicans putting Ausley’s image on a shooting target.
After GOP officials became aware of the mailer, Leon County Republican Party Chairman Evan Power (who’s also a higher-up in the Florida Republican Party) filed a complaint with the Florida Board of Elections alleging that the ad (and several others) don’t have the stated approval of the candidates as required by state law.
Disclaimers on the ads indicate the committee endorses Ausley, Sen. Janet Cruz and Senate District 38 candidate Janelle Perez, but the ads don’t mention approval from the three Democrats.
“None of the political advertisements contain the approval of the three referenced candidates,” Power wrote in his complaint. “Nor do the advertisements contain a disclosure that each political advertisement is an independent expenditure. Obviously, any such claim would be absurd.”
By not explicitly stating a candidate’s approval, state law might treat the advertisements as in-kind donations. If the ads are deemed in-kind contributions, they would exceed the in-kind limits in state law.
However, the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a campaign arm run by Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, told Florida Politics that state election officials have approved the advertisements’ fine print.
“The disclaimer used had been previously reviewed and approved for use in the past by the Florida Division of Elections,” said Claire VanSusteren, the committee’s spokesperson.
Corey Simon, meanwhile, is calling on his opponent to apologize for the mailer, as well as pushing back against its narrative that the Republican puts the right to keep and bear arms over the lives of school children.
In particular, Republicans appear to have taken issue with the advertisement because of the “dangerous history of using images of Black men for target practice in this country,” as characterized by the Simon campaign’s spokesperson, Erin Isaac. The Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee had used the disclaimer language for months, but it wasn’t until the gun safety ad ran that Power filed a complaint.
Power and the Simon campaign asked Ausley to apologize for the imagery.
“You can’t just be an ally when it’s convenient, Loranne,” Isaac said in a statement. “It helps if you do the right thing, even when it doesn’t serve your needs.”
The ad labels Simon, a former Florida State football star well-liked by Seminole fans, as an “extremist” because of his endorsement from DeSantis. DeSantis has repeatedly stated his intention to sign a permitless carry law before he leaves office, which would remove the need for Floridians to acquire a permit to carry a handgun.
The ad also highlights a portion of a tweet Simon posted in March 2018, the month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in which 17 people died. The shooter used an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, sparking discussion at the time over whether to ban similar weapons.
“Yes, AR are hunting rifles. They also account for less than 1% of all mass shootings. Just because you say no brainer or facts don’t make it so,” Simon tweeted.
Simon’s campaign website doesn’t include a platform but mentions his support for “protecting individual freedoms and constitutional rights.” However, the Simon campaign told Florida Politics he supports the Guardian Program and having school resource officers on campus to protect children.
“To suggest Corey would do anything but protect our children when he has spent his entire adult life doing just that is politics at its worst,” Isaac said.
This is all part of the anti-gun playbook, so it’s no surprise that Ausley’s received the endorsement of Everytown for Gun Safety’s political action committee. Oddly though, for someone who’s committed to “gunsense”, Ausley’s website is strangely absent of any mention of gun control. Despite the mailer, Ausley’s not really running as an out-and-proud gun control candidate. In fact, during a debate between the two on Monday, Ausley even trotted out the old lefty trope of “I support the Second Amendment, but…”
Ausley said that, while she supports Second Amendment rights, “even the Florida Constitution acknowledges that the manner of bearing arms can be regulated by law.”
“We have a gun violence epidemic in this country, and it’s different than every country around the world. And it’s far too easy for people who shouldn’t have access to guns to get them,” she said.
Her answer: make it harder for law-abiding citizens to exercise their Second Amendment rights in the hopes that there’ll be some trickle-down effect on violent criminals.
During the debate, by the way, Ausley insisted that her campaign had nothing to do with the controversial mailer, saying “It was put out by the Democratic Party. I have no control over what they send out. I do not prefer these campaign tactics, I don’t think either of us do, but neither of us can control them.”
The committee that sent out the mailer says Ausley approved it, while Ausley herself says she had no involvement. I don’t know who’s actually telling the truth about how the ad came together, but I do know that its insinuation that Simon is an “extremist” who is more interested in protecting guns than kids in school should be condemned and rejected by the district’s voters.