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2020 Ad Update for June Primaries: One Thing COVID Hasn’t Changed is the GOP’s Reliance on their ‘Divide and Distract’ Messaging

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Within the next two weeks, voters in 11 states will hold their Congressional party primaries. While COVID has delayed some the process and spurred changes in how millions will cast their ballots, unfortunately the persistent use of xenophobic dog-whistling by GOP candidates has remained consistent throughout the crisis. Congressional campaigns across the country have continued to turn to the “divide and distract” playbook in their ad strategy. Looking to distract voters from a glaring lack of popular policy proposals, Republican campaigns have sought to divide voters along racial lines using a combination of fear-mongering and finger-pointing. 

The America’s Voice 2020AdWatch.com project is tracking these ads, and has been releasing a series of reports underscoring some of the worst ads and candidates. We remarked on the widespread use of anti-immigrant messaging before several primaries on March 3, and the twists and turns of how campaigns have been adapting their xenophobic dog-whistles to the global pandemic. 

You can also find some of Donald Trump’s most egregious ads from his reelection campaign here.


The divide and distract strategy that attempts to divide voters along racial lines turned out to be widely unsuccessful in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Nevertheless, Republican candidates and PACs continue to use fear-mongering tactics against immigrants as a central part of their messaging. Taking their cues from Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, many GOP candidates across the country have already adopted anti-immigrant messaging as a key component of their election strategy in 2020. We have already seen attack ads from several primary candidates designed to make their fellow GOP opponent appear insufficiently zealous about anti-immigration views. 

Many of the ads use dog whistle messaging in an attempt to divide voters along racial lines and distract them from the lack of GOP solutions for affordable healthcare, adequate schools, or workable reforms for our broken immigration system. We also tracked many ads which falsely blame immigrants outright for our country’s lack of access to healthcare, crime, and the failing economy.

Several primary ads from GOP candidates stir up fears about Democrats providing health care to undocumented immigrants, implying that those benefits would be subtracted from social services for the native-born Americans. In fact, a study by the “National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine” in 2017 found that immigrants contribute more tax dollars than they receive in government benefits. 

Other ads blame immigrants for crime and depict them as terrorists or criminals. However, an overwhelming amount of studies looking into the issue found no relationship between immigrants and criminal activity. In fact, multiple studies found that immigrants help revitalize neighborhoods through economic and cultural renewal. 

Most of the ads use dehumanizing rhetoric to describe undocumented immigrants as “illegals” or “illegal aliens.” Those terms are not only deeply offensive and dangerous — they completely distort the reality of being undocumented in the United States.

Beyond the factual inaccuracies, racial divisions, and lack of solutions found in these ads, the aggressive and apocalyptic rhetoric being thrown at immigrants can have deadly consequences. Donald Trump has been an obvious abuser of the dehumanizing rhetoric, referring to immigrants as “killers” over 500 times and publishing over 2,000 ads referring to new waves of immigrants as an “invasion.” These sentiments were tragically echoed in the deadly attack in 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the 2019 Wal-Mart shooting in El Paso

As the Trump Administration’s inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic has become clear to most Americans, many of his campaign ads have looked to divert attention from these shortcomings by blaming China for the problems America is now facing. The ads directly and solely blame China for the outbreak of COVID-19 and demand some form of accountability or punishment. Ignoring any legitimate policy or health concerns surrounding relations with China, the ads only seek to distract from the Trump Administration’s bungled response and stoke racial divisions. Often preferring the fog-horn to the dog-whistle, the Trump campaign put out an ad with particularly extreme messaging, signaling that Asian-Americans are connected to the global COVID-19 pandemic and should be treated with distrust. The newer ads put all the blame for the lack of medical equipment, job losses, and even the hundred thousand American COVID deaths solely on China. Some ads even insist on explicitly referring to the virus in ways the World Health Organization specifically warned against “to avoid stigmatization.” 

As millions of Americans suffer from the virus and its downstream effects, the tragic results of blasting racial dog-whistles is likely to extend beyond campaign rhetoric. The FBI already warned local law enforcement agencies that “hate crime incidents against Asian-Americans likely will surge across the United States,” as people falsely associate them with the spread of COVID-19. The tragic reality is that Asian-Americans are suffering on average around one hundred attacks every single day, a number that may increase as a result of these multi-million dollar ads which further promote hateful rhetoric. 

And while the distinct style of this dog-whistle might be new, the sound is distinctly familiar. Trump and his allies have been running on versions of “blame the other” messaging for the last four years, falsely claiming that non-white communities “take our jobs,” “make us unsafe,” and “are a drain on our healthcare system.” Many of the ads have continued with these familiar racial dog-whistles around Latinos, while others have sought to tie old racist messaging with COVID-19 worries.

This most recent report demonstrates that dog-whistle racism will be the GOP message no matter what twists and turns come before November and that those who give racist campaigns money should be asked serious questions about the kind of messages they’re paying millions of dollars to spread. 

Below, we quote anti-immigrant messaging in order to describe the ads — language that many may find offensive. You can read more about our 2020AdWatch.com project here.

Pennsylvania (June 2)

  • PA-01: Looking to fend off a primary challenge, Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick ran a TV ad using an anti-China dog-whistle. In the ad the narrator says: “For decades, China has been stealing our jobs. Now, they are trying to steal our future.”
  • PA-07: Looking for the opportunity to take on Democrat Rep. Susan Wild in November,  businesswoman Lisa Scheller and former Lehigh County Commissioner Dean Browning are facing off in the Republican primary. Both have used anti-immigrant messaging in their campaigns. Scheller ran a video ad attacking sanctuary cities and calling for Trump’s wall. She also ran Facebook ads fear-mongering about the “liberal dream” of open borders and decriminalization, claiming that “drugs and crime would flow freely into the U.S.” if liberals got their way. Browning has focused his xenophobic messages to attacks on Scheller. In one ad he accuses Scheller of being “Pro-China” and claims that she is “voting to make Lehigh a sanctuary county.” In a mailer from Browning’s campaign, he even accused Scheller of being “pro-illegals.”   
  • PA-08: Former staffer for notorious xenophobe Lou Barletta, Jim Bognet, is running in the PA-08 GOP primary. Like his former boss, Bognet has used his campaign to demonstrate his anti-immigrant zeal.  He ran a radio ad saying “the Chinese Communists sent us coronavirus.” The ad continues with anti-Chinese rhetoric, saying “we have scores to settle” and “we’ll make China pay for the lies they told, the jobs they stole, and the lives we’ve lost.” He ends the ad by saying that he will stand with Trump to “finish the wall, ban sanctuary cities, and send illegals back.” Bognet also cut two TV ads using similar messaging. In one ad Bognet says China “sent us the Wuhan Flu” and goes onto state that “illegal immigrants took our jobs, spread crime, and sent taxpayers the bill.” In the other ad, a narrator touts that Bognet is “pro-Trump, pro-wall, and anti-China.”

New Mexico (June 2)

  • Senate: Meteorologist Mark Ronchetti, who is competing in the GOP primary for the open New Mexico Senate seat, has made anti-immigrant messaging central to his election strategy. One of Ronchetti’s first Facebook ads fear-mongered on crime and “eliminating ICE.” Ronchetti’s TV ads continued the divide and distract playbook. One Ronchetti ad responds to the pandemic by calling for a “crackdown on China” and a border wall.  In another ad, Ronchetti fear-mongers around drug cartels, calls for more border agents, the wall, and ending sanctuary cities. Anti-abortion activist Elisa Martinez, who is also competing in the GOP Senate primary race, ran a couple of Facebook ads touting her support for the wall and against sanctuary cities. 
  • NM-02: The hotly contested GOP primary between the 2018 GOP nominee Yvette Herrell and businesswoman Claire Chase, has focused around blind loyalty to Trump. Both candidates have also used anti-immigrant messages in their campaigns. Herrell put out an ad where Republican Rep. Jim Jordan says Herrell will “secure our border, hold China accountable.” Chase ran an ad claiming that current Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D) will not secure the border, but Chase will “build the wall, right here.”  In another ad featuring an endorsement from a New Mexico rancher named Russell Johnson, Johnson says: “Too often I get calls from U.S. border patrol chasing trucks full of illegal immigrants across our land. It’s only getting worse. And they bring gangs and violence with them.” He uses this language as images of someone in a body bag being loaded into a coroner’s van flashes across the screen. 

Montana (June 2)

  • Senate: Senator Steve Daines is predicted to defeat his primary challengers on Tuesday but is looking at a real challenge in November against his likely Democratic opponent Governor Steve Bullock. In response, Daines has leaned hard into the divide and distract playbook, running ads using anti-immigrant messaging and blaming China for the pandemic. In a six-figure TV ad buy, the narrator says “China lied and now over 30 million Americans are out of work. Nancy Pelosi’s plan? Give $6,000 government checks to illegal immigrants.” The ad continues with the “Daines plan,” which says he will “Hold China accountable” and “Ban Immigration”.  In another TV ad, Daines warns against “open borders.” Starting a year ago, Daines began running ads trying to stir up racial division around how tax money is spent, despite the fact that immigrants pay billions in taxes each year. These ads pushed the unnecessary and harmful citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Despite the courts rejecting the addition of the citizenship question — and the fact that the Census is now well underway — Daines is still running ads calling for the citizenship question to be put back on the form. Daines has also used his Facebook ads to fear-monger on sanctuary cities and blame China for COVID, writing “China hid their virus”.  
  • MT-AL: Montana’s at-large House seat is open after journalist-tackling Rep. Greg Gianforte announced he was running for Governor. After losing to John Tester in the 2018 Senate race, Matt Rosendale is trying his hand at winning a seat in Congress and recut the exact ad he used in 2018. Rosendale’s ad focuses on anti-immigration messaging, warning about “sanctuary cities” and “amnesty” as he dramatically calls for the wall to be built. Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who is running against Rosendale in the GOP primary, is out with an attack ad accusing Rosendale of supporting “amnesty.” The ad continues with Stapleton expressing his support for building the wall as the image on screen flashes to MS-13 gang members crammed behind bars. The photo is from the same series as the infamous MS-13 photo that appears in many GOP ads taken by Adam Hinton in 2013.

Iowa (June 2)

  • IA-02: Looking to be the GOP nominee to compete for the open House seat, Iowa State Senator Mariannette Miller-Meeks ran Facebook ads using anti-immigrant and China COVID messaging. Her ads called for the unnecessary border wall and a “crackdown on illegal immigration”. Miller-Meeks also fear-mongered about sanctuary cities by writing, “I will oppose sanctuary cities and work to make sure illegal immigrants do not receive taxpayer-funded benefits so our nation is no longer an inviting hideout for dangerous criminals.” She also ran a video ad that superimposed the Chinese flag over an animation of the virus, stating that we should “hold China accountable for what they have done.”   
  • IA-04:  Finally, stripped of his committee assignments last year, white nationalist Rep. Steve King is facing a credible primary challenge on Tuesday. King’s explicit racism and xenophobia has become infamous over the years. However, Iowa State Senator Randy Feenstra’s primary challenge has made anti-immigrant messaging central to his campaign. Feenstra’s Facebook ads have fear-mongered around sanctuary cities, called for the wall, and to “block amnesty for illegals!” His video ads warn against “open borders” and “dangerous sanctuary cities”. Another says he will help Trump build the wall and “stop the left’s dangerous border policies.”      

South Dakota (June 2)

  • Senate: Senator Mike Rounds is out with an ad that begins with, “We know that China lied to the world downplaying the danger of the coronavirus” and goes on to compare the virus to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, making the false equivalency that COVID is a foreign attack on home soil comparable to these other attacks. 

Indiana (June 2)

  • IN-05: Looking to fill the open seat after Republican Rep. Susan Brooks announced her retirement, over a dozen people jumped into the Republican primary. Former Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi has tried to stand out with xenophobic dog-whistle TV ad. The ad jumps on the ‘blame China’ messaging but takes it a step further by asserting, without evidence, that China “infiltrated our southern border.” His ad ends with “Trump and I will hold the Chinese government accountable and we’ll build the wall and break our dependency with China.” Meanwhile, businesswoman Beth Henderson is running an attack ad on Facebook saying GOP primary challenger State Senator Victoria Spartz “has a secret to hide” as the video cuts to flashes of Spartz with a communist flag in the background. The clip is from one of Spartz’s own ads where she explains that she is an immigrant who grew up in Ukraine under Soviet control. Henderson’s ad ends with a clear xenophobic shot, stating emphatically that she was “born in the USA.” Henderson also ran Facebook ads fear-mongering around the border. Republican Andrew Bales has run a video ad on Facebook, making dubious assertions about how undocumented immigrants are a drain on taxpayers. Republican Micah Beckwith has made the “hold China accountable” message a part of his Facebook ads and used the popular dog-whistle catchphrase “China lied, Americans died.”   

Georgia (June 9)

  • GA-07:  Looking to compete for the open battleground seat, State Senator Renee Unterman has run several Facebook ads calling for a “crackdown on criminal illegals,” a “fight to defund sanctuary cities,” and to build the wall. Doctor Rich McCormick, who is also competing in the primary, has also employed the xenophobic dog-whistles. In one TV ad a narrator says McCormick will “hold China accountable for lives lost, businesses ruined and jobs destroyed,” while an image of Xi Jinping and a Chinese flag waves in the background. McCormick also repeatedly ran a Facebook ad that fear-mongered around the border, and mentioned the wall as a tool to “stop violent criminal immigrants from entering our country and combat the flow of illicit drugs and child trafficking.”  
  • GA-14: In this crowded GOP primary, candidates have made continual use of xenoobhic dog-whistles in an attempt to stand out. Businessman Ben Bullock ran a TV ad where he said, “liberals praise China, refuse to protect our borders and now we are in the middle of this mess. We know that China lied and Americans died.”  Bullock also ran a Facebook ad attacking the HEROES Act for giving “your money to illegal immigrants!” Also in the race, businesswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene ran Facebook ads referring to COVID as the “China virus.” In one TV ad Taylor Greene sits in the back truck has she shoots a rifle into a field at a graphic that reads “open borders.” In another ad Taylor Greene places the four progressive Democratic Congresswomen colloquially known as “The Squad” in front of the Chinese flag, insinuating that her would-be colleagues are a domestic threat. Matt Laughridge also ran Facebook ads referring to COVID as the “China virus” and has made anti-China dog-whistles central to his campaign. 

Nevada (June 9)

  • NV-03: Former pro-wrestler Dan Rodimer has run TV ads attacking former Nevada State Treasurer Dan Schwartz with anti-immigrant messaging. One ad accuses Schwartz of being “pro-amnesty,” and another calls him “amnesty loving.” Meanwhile, Schwartz has run numerous Facebook ads attacking Democrat Rep. Susie Lee for allegedly “giving free healthcare, college, and welfare to illegal immigrants.” 

West Virginia (June 9)

  • Governor: Businessman Woody Thrasher is running a primary challenge against Republican Governor Jim Justice. Thrasher has run two different TV ads attacking Governor Justice for continuing to allow refugees to be settled in the state after the Trump Administration attempted a backdoor effort to avoid our national and international refugee laws. One Thrasher ad criticizes Justice because he “welcomed refugees into our state.“ Sharpening his dog-whistle for those who missed it in the first ad, Thrasher released another where he criticizes Justice for “letting unfettered refugees into our state,” while an image of migrants crowded in detention plays on the screen. The racial dog-whistle is only further exposed by the fact that West Virginia resettled fewer than 10 refugees in 2019.  
  • Attorney General: The “Rule of Law Defense Fund,” a national super PAC formally led by Scott Pruitt, ran a Facebook video ad praising West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for his effort to “crack down on sanctuary cities.”  Morrisey is looking to hold onto his seat in November.