The use of anti-Muslim bigotry in political campaigns is a tactic Muslims and Muslim candidates have seen over and over in recent years. Just last week, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) launched a series of Islamophobic and racist attack ads against his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar.
But a new report shows that candidates who have run on these very tactics in the last two years have faced backlash and eventually lost their elections.
In its “Running on Hate” report released Monday, Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., documented candidates who ran ― or are running ― in the 2017 and 2018 elections and produced Islamophobic campaigns as part of their political strategy.
Political mudslinging and malicious campaigns are nothing new in the history of American elections. But in the last few years, especially after the election of Donald Trump as president, racist and xenophobic campaigns have increased alongside the alarming number of white supremacists running for office and the subsequent rise in hate crimes nationwide.
Half of the 2017-18 candidates Muslim Advocates identified in its report were running for Congress, with the remaining 40 running for local positions, including 15 candidates for county office, 15 for governor and 10 for state legislature. Of the 73 races where a candidate’s party affiliation could be positively identified, all but two were Republicans, further confirming the GOP’s hostility toward Muslims.
While 34 of these campaigns are still active, the results for the other 46 went heavily against those candidates: 27 anti-Muslim candidates lost their races, eight dropped out, and one was recalled. Only two of them ultimately won, both in 2017.
Meanwhile, the report predicts that many of the still-active candidates will lose, with “only one or two newly elected anti-Muslim candidates” ― meaning most of the winners would likely be incumbents.
The report based its conclusions on various focus groups and the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns.
“There has always been a resilient but small cadre of politicians that have been anti-Muslim for years. But it has absolutely exploded in the 2017 and 2018 elections,” Scott Simpson, the author of the report and the public advocacy director at Muslim Advocates, told Huffpost.
“It is vitally important that candidates, politicians and elected officials understand that this is a path to loss. This is not a way to win an election. It’s also irresponsible and divisive. But it’s not even effective,” Simpson added.
The problem of using anti-Muslim language is widespread nationwide. The state with the most anti-Muslim candidates was Texas with eight, followed by Virginia and Florida with six apiece, according to the report.
These candidates propagated “false, bigoted and dangerous” conspiracy theories often promoted by various hate groups. Some of these conspiracy theories claimed that Muslim-Americans were inherently violent and sought to take over the U.S. government. Other candidates used fear-mongering tactics during the campaign, repeating false myths that Muslims want to implement sharia law and declaring that Islam is a cult rather than a religion like any other.
Samara Klar is an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy where she studies how an individual’s personal identity and social surroundings influence their political opinions.
Based on her research, Klar argues that the recent use of xenophobia and racism as a political strategy is viewed as “socially undesirable” and that most Americans are unlikely to come out and publicly support such “damaging and counterproductive” messages.
So why are candidates relying on anti-Muslim and xenophobic messages to secure votes? Because then-presidential candidate Trump relied on such strategies and won in 2016.
“It could be confusing to a candidate that sees Donald Trump use these explicitly xenophobic things, and he wins, so maybe it will work for me too,” Klar said.
Simpson predicted that this tactic will not only fail candidates in this election cycle, but will also set a precedent for future elections.
“A lot of these candidates are making a really faulty assumption because they saw Trump get elected. And that really faulty assumption is that anti-Muslim bigotry is popular. It is not,” Simpson said.
“We know that candidates are always looking to see what works, and we know that the 2018 election is a dress rehearsal for 2020.”