Roger Ailes changed the way Americans see politicians — not only Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, but also Mitch McConnell.
He brought America Fox News and helped Nixon soften his surly image in 1968 and Trump’s out-of-nowhere presidential bid last year. But before that, the media guru who died Thursday at age 77 played a big role in electing McConnell, now the Senate majority leader.
In September 1984, McConnell, then the Jefferson County judge-executive, the top elected official in Kentucky’s most populous county, was polling 40 points behind his opponent, Democratic Sen. Dee Huddleston. That is, until he hired Ailes.
In his autobiography last year, McConnell called it “one of the smartest moves I made.”
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“I was happy he agreed to do it. I sure needed help.” McConnell wrote in “The Long Game.”
The arrangement gave birth to one of the most successful political ads of all time.
Ailes and McConnell needed to find a way to exploit Huddleston’s biggest weakness: his tendency to not show up for work.
One night while watching TV, Ailes saw a dog food commercial and got an idea.
They hired an actor named Snarfy to play a Kentucky farmer and found some bloodhounds, prized as hunting dogs in Kentucky.
In the ad, Snarfy and the dogs go off in search of Huddleston in places where he was giving paid speeches instead of casting votes in the Senate. Snarfy and the dogs searched city streets, by the pool and on the beach for Kentucky’s missing senator.
“Our job was to find Dee Huddleston and get him back to work,” the narrator said.
The ad closed with a pitch to “switch to Mitch” as one of the dogs barked twice.
Kentuckians loved it.
“On the trail, people began to approach me, to shake my hand and comment on how funny they’d found the ad,” McConnell wrote in his autobiography. “This momentum was just what I needed.”
That November, as Ronald Reagan coasted to a landslide presidential victory, McConnell won his first Senate term by 5,000 votes.
Ailes told McConnell he’d never seen anyone come that far from behind and win.
“I think it can be argued that if not for Roger Ailes, the political history of Kentucky and the United States would be a lot different,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky and a veteran journalist.
Cross said that even the late Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford, when running for re-election in 1986, cut a commercial showing himself working at his desk on Capitol Hill, with a bloodhound at his side. No Democrat has been elected to the U.S. Senate in Kentucky since Ford, who retired in 1999.
“That hound dog ad was and still is one of the classics,” said Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of advertising at Boston University. “It was cleverly done and really just a great piece of political advertising.”
One of the things that made the Ailes ad so successful, Berkovitz said, is it was a negative ad that didn’t seem like one.
“If a voter sees it over and over, they like it each time,” he said. “It’s something they don’t hit the clicker for.”
Part of what made Ailes a genius, or a villain, Berkovitz said, was his keen sense for what made voters tick, and what ticked them off.
Ailes went on to produce ads for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in his successful 1988 presidential campaign against then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. He founded Fox News in 1996 and stepped down as chairman and CEO last year amid a cloud of sexual-harassment allegations.
“If he’s working for you, good luck. If he’s not working for you, too bad,” Berkovitz said. “He knew how to win political donnybrooks.”
Ailes also had an eye for good candidates, Cross noted.
“I suspect Roger Ailes saw that in Mitch McConnell,” he said.