When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence ran for Congress in 1990, his campaign came under fire from Arab-American groups for a political ad that was labeled racially-insensitive.
The ad, which BuzzFeed News was unable to obtain and view but was widely reported on in local press at the time, featured a man with a heavily Middle Eastern accent wearing a black robe, white headdress, and sunglasses thanking Pence’s opponent Rep. Phil Sharp for not weaning the U.S. off a dependence on foreign oil. Sharp was the chairman of a House Subcommittee on Energy and Power at the time.
"My people would like to thank you Americans for buying so much of our oil,” says the man in the ad to Sharp, while thanking him for taking oil and gas PAC money.
"Oh, thank you, Phil Sharp!,” the Middle Eastern man says.
The Washington-based Arab American Institute called the ad offensive. Pence defended the ad, telling the Associated Press, "This ad is not about Arabs. It is about Phil Sharp's failure to lead."
The Daily Journal, a local newspaper in the district, ran an editorial criticizing the spot. “Pence’s political ads insulting to arabs,” the headline read, before a scathing editorial comparing it to running an ad with blackface or an Italian man dressed as a mob boss.
More than 200 people gathered in a local Greek Orthodox church to protest the ad, which was called a “racist depiction of their culture.”
“It’s degrading,” said a women of Syrian heritage. “What’s so funny?” another asked. “It’s a cheap shot,” declared a Arab-American college professor.
Pence’s campaign manager said the ad meant “no malice” towards Arab-Americans.
Local editorials were run blasting the ad, with even Republican voters writing in to local papers to say they were offended. “Using it shows poor judgement,” wrote the Indianapolis News, comparing it to anti-Semitic caricatures. Letter after letter to editors blasted the ad.
“I’m one Republican who won’t vote for him,” one letter said of the ad.
The Indianapolis Star labeled it the worst commercial of the year.
In the end, Pence lost the race. Years later he wrote about how he regretted how he campaigned.
"It was a terrible experience. A bloodbath. But I own the responsibility,” Pence said to the Indian Business Journal in 1994 on his campaign. "We lost the race, and lost our mission--to honor God, and love your neighbor as yourself. We scarcely did that."