The GOP's Anti-Immigrant Agenda May Come Back To Haunt Them

The Republican strategy to “divide and distract” isn’t working the way it used to.
Republican candidates in the midterm elections are betting their chances on anti-immigrant attacks ― just like Donald Trump did in 2016.
Republican candidates in the midterm elections are betting their chances on anti-immigrant attacks ― just like Donald Trump did in 2016.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Midterms fast approach, and Americans are once again being inundated with attack ads from candidates on both ends of the political spectrum. The GOP for its part has abandoned campaigning on the party’s one big legislative accomplishment so far under President Donald Trump ― massive tax cuts for the rich and powerful ― and instead are doubling down on their old, reliable narrative, scapegoating immigrants and stoking white fear.

Anti-immigrant attack ads are nothing new; Trump launched his unprecedented White House bid in 2015 by relentlessly and unapologetically attacking undocumented immigrants. These kinds of ads have been deployed by candidates all the way from Maine to Arizona and the many states in-between.

But a curious trend is occurring amid the GOP’s attempts to paint immigrants as the rapists, murderers and drug dealers they want Americans to believe are causing all of our problems: In certain races, these attack ads may now be backfiring. Using immigrants and refugees as punching bags is what the GOP base responds to, but it may no longer be enough to ensure Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress.

Consider the disgusting campaign ads that aired in Georgia during the Republican gubernatorial primary. Two of the GOP candidates engaged in a race to the bottom, trying to outdo each other on just how anti-immigrant they could be. Brian Kemp said he would use his personal truck to deport as many “illegal” immigrants from Georgia as possible; Michael Williams painted the words “Deportation Bus” on the side of an old school bus, promising to deport even more “illegals” than his opponent.

Kemp ended up winning the primary fight, and in Republican-leaning Georgia should have emerged as the clear favorite in the governor’s race. But polls have shown him locked in a nip-and-tuck battle with Democrat Stacey Abrams, who seeks to become America’s first black woman governor.

Earlier this year in Pennsylvania, Republicans abandoned messaging that spotlighted their beloved tax bill in a high-profile House special election and instead played the anti-immigrant card. Democrat Conor Lamb ran a fairly positive race while Republican Rick Saccone relied on fear and anti-immigrant posturing. Saccone’s team threw everything they had at Lamb ― tying him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and sanctuary cities, two things Republicans coalesce their hatred around ― and still lost the election.

“Using immigrants and refugees as punching bags is what the GOP base responds to, but it may no longer be enough to ensure Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress.”

And what did Republicans take away from that race? If your anti-immigrant attacks don’t work in scaring voters away from your Democratic opponent the first time around, dust yourself off and try again. In Virginia, Corey Stewart ― the xenophobic Republican who lost his gubernatorial bid against Democrat Ralph Northam in 2017 and is now running for Senate against Democratic incumbent Tim Kaine ― is employing the same anti-immigrant tactics and ads he used in his losing campaign for governor.

Polls show Kaine leading Stewart by healthy margins. Maybe Stewart didn’t learn from his past mistakes.

In Nevada, meanwhile, the Senate Leadership Fund ― a super political action committee set up to promote GOP control of the chamber ― is pouring money into ads attacking the Democratic Senate candidate, Rep. Jackie Rosen, on her pro-immigration record. She’s seeking to unseat Republican Sen. Dean Heller, whose record includes voting against the Dream Act ― a 2010 bill that aimed to give undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children the chance to obtain legal status under certain conditions. Heller’s re-election bid has seen him move farther to the right on immigration; he told a crowd earlier this year that “Republicans want illegal immigrants to work but not vote. Democrats want them not to work, but to vote.”

Rosen has been holding a slim lead over Heller in recent polls in a state where a quarter of the population is Hispanic.

I could dissect every attack ad that attempts to call out Democrats for being “soft on immigration” and not tough enough on crime. But this begs an even bigger question: With Republicans controlling Congress and the White House, is this the best they have in their political arsenal ahead of midterms? Pathetic, if that’s the case.

In ruby-red Kansas, a major $1 million ad buy on behalf of GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder against his Democratic challenger, Sharice Davids, was recently canceled by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Why? Because such racially charged attacks have not moved independent voters his way, according to some observers.

Apparently, the Republican strategy to “divide and distract,” which replaces their policy proposals and vision for the future of our country with the vitriolic anti-immigrant attacks that have become too familiar under the Trump administration, isn’t working ― even in a state like Kansas, where the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Kris Kobach, has built a national profile through strident attacks on undocumented immigrants.

In just a few weeks, voters head to the polls to decide if Trump loyalists will prevail. Until then, Americans will repeatedly be served politically charged ads echoing Trump’s anti-immigrant position. I hope they remind Americans of the immigrant families destroyed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, the traumatized young children held in detention centers at the southern border, and the Dreamers currently in the sights of the president’s deportation force.

It’s clear GOP candidates are betting on a formula of attacking minorities, people of color and immigrants ― just like Trump did in 2016. This technique ― attacking the less-fortunate and those seeking a better life for their families ― will be what gets Republican extremists booted from Congress as they tout efforts to divide Americans, not solve the real changes facing our democracy.

Juan Escalante is an immigrant advocate and online strategist who has been fighting for the Dream Act and pro-immigration policies at all levels of government for the past 10 years.

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