This week, voters in Alabama, California, North Carolina, and Texas — among ten other Super Tuesday states — are selecting primary nominees for local, state, and national races. Candidates (as well as organizations and PACs) have been blanketing social media channels and airwaves with racist and xenophobic ads. The America’s Voice project 2020AdWatch.com is tracking these ads, and will be releasing a series of reports underscoring some of the worst ads and candidates. This is our first report, explaining ads from competitive primaries in Alabama, California, North Carolina, and Texas.
You can also find ads from Donald Trump’s reelection campaign here.
The divide and distract strategy that attempts to divide voters along racial lines turned out to be a loser in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Nevertheless, Republican candidates and PACs continue to use fear-mongering against immigrants as a central part of their electoral strategy. Taking their cues from Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, many GOP candidates across the country already adopted anti-immigrant messaging a key component of their strategy in 2020. We have already seen attack ads from primary candidates designed to make their opponent appear insufficiently zealous about anti-immigration views. And these ads from the early-voting Super Tuesday states are an indication of what is likely to follow for the rest of this year.
Many of the ads use dog whistles in an attempt to divide voters along racial lines and distract them from the lack of GOP solutions for affordable healthcare, good schools, or workable reforms for our broken immigration system. Indeed, many of the ads falsely blame immigrants for a lack of access to healthcare, crime, and the economy.
Several primary ads in Super Tuesday states gin up fears about Democrats providing health care to undocumented immigrants, implying that those benefits would be subtracted from social services for the native-born. 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 crime. 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 U.S., and the fact that being undocumented is a civil offense.
Beyond the factual inaccuracies, racial divisions, and lack of solutions found in these ads, the dehumanizing and apocalyptic rhetoric being thrown at immigrants can have deadly consequences. Donald Trump has been an obvious abuser of dehumanizing rhetoric, referring to immigrants as “killers” over 500 times and publishing over 2,000 ads referring to immigrants as an “invasion.” These sentiments were tragically echoed in the deadly attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and the Wal-Mart shooting in El Paso in 2019.
While anti-immigrant rhetoric alone did not cause these horrific events, it should also not be separated from them. As the primary season continues, and especially heading into the general election, PACs and those who give them 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
The contested GOP primary to take on Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) in November has been particularly nasty, and it should be no surprise that former Attorney General and long-time anti-immigrant zealot Jeff Sessions has not been kind to immigrants in his campaign. Early on, Sessions cut an ad warning that “open borders, free healthcare for illegal immigrants, that is the Democrats’ plan for America.” He later ran an ad touting his role in the “zero-tolerance” family separation policy, which took thousands of children away from their parents.
One opponent, State Rep. Arnold Mooney, released an ad warning that “our southern border is on fire. Illegal aliens swarm, opioids flow, Americans die,” over images of heavily tattooed MS-13 gang members. The ad cuts to Mooney, who says he wants to “cut legal immigration. That’s right, I said legal immigration. We can either put America first or we can keep emptying out Central America.”
But Sessions’ closer rivals in the race are former college football coach Tommy Tuberville, and current House Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL-01).
Byrne started campaigning with Facebook ads as early as the summer of 2019, touting his support for the wall and fretting over the border as a major security issue. Another ad used the endorsement of local law enforcement officers to emphasize the removal of “loopholes of illegal immigration.” And last week, Byrne ran another Facebook ad declaring, “I am not for amnesty; it’s bad for the American people.”
Tuberville, the non-politician in the race, quickly established that he too would use anti-immigrant fear-mongering as an electoral strategy. He ran an ad touting his support for the border wall and advancing the myth that immigrants lower wages and “take jobs.” Turbeville ran another ad touting his support for the wall and saying, “God sent us Donald Trump.”
Meanwhile, all three primary candidates have tried to paint each other as insufficiently anti-immigrant. Tuberville ran an ad attacking Byrne for being soft on immigrants while doubling down on his own support for Trump, the wall, and a “crackdown on illegal immigration.” Both Byrne and Sessions attacked Tuberville over his supposed support for immigrants: Byrne by saying that Tuberville wanted “illegals here”, and Sessions claiming that “Tuberville blames Donald Trump for illegal immigration.”
U.S. House Congressional Districts AL-01 and AL-02 both have competitive primaries where the candidates have used anti-immigrant messaging. Competing for Bradley Byrne’s old seat in AL-01 are Republicans Jerry Carl and Chis Pringle, both of whom have focused their ad spending on attacking immigrants. Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl ran two TV ads supporting construction of the wall and ending “handouts for law-breaking illegals.” Carl’s ads use the same footage of an arrest that the hate group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) uses in one of their often-used ads. A shorter version of Carl’s ad contains only anti-immigrant messaging and runs on Facebook. State Rep. Chris Pringle has an ad where he literally builds a wall around a mockup of Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, after saying that “walls protect us from America’s enemies.”
In the open primary in AL-02, Jeff Coleman and Jessica Taylor (both business owners) have ads worth noting. Coleman ran an ad where he walks in front of a fleet of semi-trucks, saying he wants to help Trump “end illegal immigration and finally build that wall.” An older version of the ad had Coleman suggesting he would help deport undocumented immigrants using his semis: “drug dealers, human traffickers, terrorists who commit crimes and get to stay here. How do we get them all back across the border? Well, I am in the moving business.” Taylor has an ad saying she will build the wall and “turn up the heat on the socialist squad” as she ignites a flame thrower.
California does not have partisan primaries, meaning that all the candidates running for a seat compete in the primary together, with the top two vote-getters (regardless of party) moving onto the general election.
In CA-08, Tim Donnelly is looking to upset the clear favorite Jay Obernolte (they are both State Assemblymembers) to replace Rep. Paul Cook in this heavily Republican district. Donnelly pulled a disturbing anti-immigrant stunt by inviting heavily armed militia members to patrol the border — a tactic which has a violent and racist history. He then ran a Facebook ad with a three-minute video from the San Diego Union-Tribune about the event to gain support for his Congressional bid. Donnelly also ran another Facebook ad attacking Obernolte or being insufficiently anti-immigrant.
Democrat Pete Aguilar will likely return to Congress representing CA-31, however, his Republican challenger Agnes Gibbone is closely allied with the hate group FAIR. Gibbone frequently distributes their content on her campaign Twitter account; in one post from February, Gibbone shared a link from FAIR praising the Trump Administration’s extreme changes to the “public charge” rule. “Great plan @realDonaldTrump,” she wrote, “next no more birth right (sic) CITIZENSHIP and IMPLEMENTATION & MANDATORY E-verify.” Gibbone is also featured in a FAIR video that they have used for their own paid advertisements.
In CA-45, Democratic Rep. Katie Porter has a slew of Republican challengers, with two in particular running ugly ads. Laguna Hills Mayor Don Sedgwick ran a TV ad associating undocumented immigrants with crime and drugs, while Yorba Linda Council Member Peggy Huang ran Facebook ads proclaiming her opposition to “amnesty for illegal immigrants.”
After Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter resigned in scandal from the CA-50 seat, former Rep. Darrell Issa and radio host Carl DeMaio have been locked in an ad war attacking each other over their stances on immigration. Darrell Issa, who did not seek reelection for his CA-49 seat in 2018, is now running for CA-50. Even before his primary battle with DeMaio, Issa was already running ads trying to establish his xenophobic credibility. He ran one ad saying, “if liberals get their way — forget about the wall, instead, we’ll have red carpet welcoming a stampede of illegal immigrants.” Another Issa ad accused DeMaio of “supporting citizenship for illegal aliens” and used the same photo of tattooed MS-13 gang members that has repeatedly shown up in Republican ads across the country without context. Issa’s ad came as a response to DeMaio’s claim that Issa opposes Trump’s wall, supports “open borders”, and wants “amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.” Other ads emphasize similar themes, with one candidate or the other accusing each other of insufficient anti-immigrant positions.
Looking to defend his Senate seat, incumbent Thom Tillis has already employed the Republican-playbook divide and distract strategy. In one ad, Tillis clipped a segment of a speech Trump gave in North Carolina, where the president claimed “deadly sanctuary cities release violent criminal illegal aliens onto our streets.” Tillis used that same clip in another ad attacking so-called sanctuary cities and praising Trump. And in a long introductory ad, Tillis showed someone wearing an “Abolish ICE” t-shirt while a voiceover talks about how Democrats are for “open borders and the end of the rule of law.” Tillis has also turned to Twitter to attack both the Democrats running in their primary, warning that one is “considering free healthcare for illegal immigrants” and that he fear-mongers will put “North Carolina families at risk.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee has picked up that attack as well.
Tillis faced two Republican primary challengers early on, who ran ads with anti-immigrant messaging, but both dropped out before this week. Looking to challenge Tillis from the far-right, the superPAC American Foundations Committee — which was allied with retired businessman Garland Tucker — ran a TV ad attacking Tillis over supposedly insufficient support of the wall. The ad prompted a response ad from Tillis’ campaign defending his support for Trump’s immigration policies. Political newcomer Sandy Smith also initially threw her hat into the ring for the Senate seat, running Facebook ads that said, “sign up to stop the invasion” with a photo from a conflict clear not at the U.S. border. But Smith is now running for a House seat in North Carolina’s 1st district, and is touting her positive rating from the anti-immigrant organization NumbersUSA rating on Twitter.
In the crowded field to replace Rep. Mark Meadows in NC-11, Lynda Bennett — a friend of the Meadows’ family — is the likely favorite. While anti-immigrant rhetoric has not been central in this primary contest, Bennett made her support for the wall a feature of one ad. In another ad that the House Freedom Caucus ran in support of Bennett, a narrator frets over the border and worries that “America is under siege.”
Texas Senator John Cornyn has fully embraced the anti-immigrant divide and distract strategy in defense of his longtime seat. So far, Cornyn has focused on digital advertising via Facebook and Google. For the last year, Cornyn has consistently run an email acquisition campaign supporting the border wall and warning against giving “illegal aliens FREE health insurance on your dime.” Cornyn ran one Facebook video ad touting his hardline immigration stance for months. As the narrator says in the ad, “$4.6 billion dollars [is being used to] address the humanitarian crisis at the border…billions more to build the wall, cracking down on sanctuary cities . . . to keep our families safe.” The ad shows images from an incident when asylum-seeking women and children were forced to flee tear gas shot into the crowd by the U.S. border patrol. Another Facebook video ad strikes a similar theme, praising Cornyn’s crackdown “on illegal immigration” and efforts to “build the wall.”
Republican candidates have run some form of xenophobic ad or another in at least a dozen races for House seats representing Texas.
Looking to challenge Democrat Lizzie Fletcher for her TX-07 seat in November, Army vet Wesley Hunt ran an ad praising Trump for calling “Mexican drug cartels. . . terrorist organizations.” Wesley continues by saying, “we need to build the wall and destroy the cartels, even if it means using force.”
Maria Espinoza, who runs the anti-immigrant hate group the Remembrance Project, is also competing in the TX-07 Republican primary. Espinoza has run a few Facebook ads in support of her campaign, including an endorsement from former acting director of ICE Thomas Homan.
Republican incumbent Kay Granger is looking to fend off a primary challenge for her TX-12 seat from retired tech businessman Chris Putnam. Both Granger and Putnam have attacked each other claiming they are real champions for the border wall. Putman also ran an attack ad claiming Granger supported “amnesty for 5 million illegal immigrants.”
Former Senate staffer Josh Winegarner is looking to fill the TX-13 seat following Mac Thornberry’s retirement, and Winegarner has made anti-immigrant messaging a consistent part of his campaign. In one ad, the narrator praises Winegarner for wanting to “build the wall and protect our home.” In another ad, several sheriffs endorsing his campaign said that Winegarner knows “how important to secure our border” and will “fight against the drug cartels and human traffickers”.
Entrepreneur Joshua Foxworth, who has close associations with leading white nationalists, is challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Randy Weber in the TX-14 primary. Foxworth has echoed white nationalist conspiracy theories and run Facebook ads calling for an end to affirmative action and for the nation to “enforce immigration laws.”
Looking to fill the TX-17 seat after the retirement of Republican Bill Flores, both former Congressman Pete Sessions (who lost his TX-32 seat to Democrat Colin Allred in 2018) and rocket scientist George Hindman have both made anti-immigrant appeals central to their campaigns. One ad from Sessions touts his support for Trump’s wall while calling for an end to “illegal immigration”. Another ad uses footage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, claiming “the terrorist even exploited welfare funding to fund their attack.” The ad says that “Trump wants to stop non-citizens from getting food stamps” and “taxpayer-funded benefits should be reserved for American citizens.” In a radio ad, Sessions claims the Democrats’ “immigration policy will simply be, let anyone in and give everyone welfare.” Meanwhile, building the wall and “enforcing our immigration laws” have been themes in Hindman’s ads. In a Facebook ad, Hindman shows himself at a candidate forum criticizing the diversity visa lottery program.
In a hotly contested Republican primary for the TX-22 seat to replace Republican Pete Olson following his retirement, Bush scion Pierce Bush, Sheriff Troy Nehls, and GOP donor Kathaleen Wall have made anti-immigrant messaging the focal point of the contest. Pierce Bush, grandson of former President George H. W. Bush, turns away from the openness of his more famous relatives by saying “Democrats want open borders” while he (Pierce Bush) wants to “deport criminal illegals”. Texans Coming Together, a new PAC supporting Bush, ran an ad that says Bush will “secure the border, deport criminal illegals, … and support ICE…[he will] keep families safe by securing the border and making sure [the Squad] never get to run the country.” One of Bush’s tweets was eerily reminiscent of his grandfather’s most infamous dog-whistle, juxtaposing black bodies with fear-mongering about crime.
Meanwhile, Nehls and Wall have been attacking each other while attempting to establish their anti-immigrant bona fides. Nehls ran an ad claiming that he “locked up over 2,500 criminal illegal immigrants” , while Wall cut a whole ad devoted to the pun relating her name to her support of Trump’s wall. She followed up with an ad saying she will stand with Trump to “stop sanctuary cities and deport criminal illegal aliens.” Wall attacked Nehls with an ad claiming he doesn’t support ICE and is “opposed a sanctuary city ban”. In response, Nehls released an ad of his own, where he repeats that he “worked with ICE to lock up over 2,500 criminal illegals.”
After Republican Will Hurd announced his retirement from his TX-23 seat, he endorsed Navy vet Tony Gonzales to replace him. The Future Leaders Fund PAC, spearheaded by Hurd, ran an ad praising Gonzales and claiming he will “designate violent gangs like MS-13 as terrorist organizations.” Gonzales himself ran a radio ad that said, “liberals are attacking our way of life. They want open borders… Gonzales will help Trump secure the border, finish the wall and end sanctuary cities.” In a different video ad, Gonzales strikes a similar tone, touting his support for the wall and saying he wants to end sanctuary cities. In ads on Facebook, Gonzales wrote, “our families deserve to feel safe in our neighborhoods without having to worry about criminals on our streets.” In other Facebook ads, Gonzales suggests the idea of the asylum is a loophole.
In TX-24, former Mayor Beth Van Duyne has been emphasizing anti-immigrant messaging to win her primary. In a TV ad, she walks through a prison saying, “there’s one thing we can all agree on: when criminal illegals commit crimes and hit these doors, they should be deported.” The ad continues with Van Duyne claiming, “liberal elites want sanctuary cities. They want to open the doors for criminal illegals.” She reinforced the message with a mailer touting an endorsement from Trump.
In addition to the above candidates, several other incumbents and newcomers in Texas have run Facebook email acquisition campaigns touting support for the wall, fear-mongering on sanctuary cites, or fretting over undocumented immigrants gaining access to healthcare. They include Rep. Van Taylor (TX-03), Rep. Randy Weber (TX-14), Monica De La Cruz Hernandez (TX-15), Rep. Chip Roy (TX-21), Rep. John Carter (TX-31), Genevieve Collins (TX-32), Floyd McLendon Jr. (TX-32), and Rep. Brian Babin (TX-36)
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