Within hours of its launch, national Democrats were demanding Republicans take it down and apologize for the "repellent, race-baiting" ad.
The National Republican Congressional Committee's ad tells the story of Nikko Jenkins, who committed four murders in 11 days after getting out of prison early under the state's "good time" law.
The ad has evoked comparisons to the controversial “Willie Horton ad” that ran during the 1988 presidential election. That ad hit former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, for furloughing Horton, who was already serving a life sentence for murder.
Horton was let out for the weekend under a state furlough program, but ran away from authorities and later kidnapped and stabbed a couple.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Ashley Lewis decried the ad, saying it "has no place in America" and demanding the NRCC take it down.
“Republicans should be ashamed that they have resorted to divisive rhetoric, playing up racial stereotypes and fear-mongering to save their sinking candidate," she said in a statement.
The Nebraska law automatically reduces prisoners’ sentences based on how much time they have served. Critics say it effectively cuts inmates’ sentences in half.
Terry, who has emerged as one of this cycle's most surprisingly vulnerable House incumbents, hit Ashford on the issue last week, saying he should have added restrictions to the good-time law when he served as chairman of the state legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
“I think that one of the egregious votes and efforts of my opponent is letting violent criminals out of jail through good time, which in Nebraska is just a straight half time,” he told The Hill. “My opponent prefers criminals over law abiding citizens, putting people in jeopardy.”
Ashford called the accusations “baseless and desperate attacks” from a “flailing campaign” in a statement to The Hill last week.
During a debate last week, Ashford blamed corrections officers, whom he said could have reversed Jenkins’s sentence reductions after he got into trouble behind bars.
The content of the ad underscores just how vulnerable Terry is heading into the final weeks of the election. There's been scant polling of the race, but a survey Ashford released in August showed the two essentially tied.
The NRCC's choice to go nuclear, by tying Ashford to a convicted murderer, is likely fueled by an urgent need to shift momentum in Terry's favor.
NRCC spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton last week said Republicans are not worried about Terry’s campaign and insisted the strategy is to merely shine a light on Ashford’s record.
“This is why we are helping Lee Terry and helping the voters get to know who Brad Ashford is because as soon as they see all this stuff and realize what this guy stands for, there’s no way they’re going to vote for him,“ Houlton said.
—This piece was updated at 1:06 p.m. to reflect comment from the DCCC.