Donald Trump, Stephen Miller, and the GOP have made their 2018 election strategy clear, with a cynical political game plan that seeks to use racialized smears against immigrants to divide Americans and distract from the issues that affect the lives of most voters. The plan was articulated by Stephen Miller to Breitbart months ago, and now, the GOP is in full implementation swing.
As America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry recently put it:
Republicans can’t run on healthcare because they are dismantling it. They can’t run on education because they are defunding it. They can’t run on retirement security because they are threatening it. And they can’t run on tax cuts because this signature GOP “achievement” has lined the pockets of their wealthy donors but done absolutely nothing for the real wages of the average family.
GOP campaign ads running in close Senate races in Missouri, North Dakota, West Virginia, Indiana, Arizona, and now Texas show the ubiquity of this approach. Candidates and super PACs with ties to top GOP officials like the Senate Leadership Fund, National Republican Senatorial Committee, and One Nation have placed millions of dollars on the wager that scapegoating immigrants is the path to electoral success. Even Vice President Mike Pence has stepped into the fray. This is all a risky bet for Republicans, however, since recent track records have shown the divide-and-distract strategy to be a loser. Nevertheless, it appears much of the GOP has bought into it.
There is a striking similarity between all these campaign ads, which feature similar misleading terminology and racialized fear-mongering imagery. Some of the ads are almost identical, outside of the use of different names. They use the charged terms like “sanctuary cities” and “amnesty” and highlight the lack of funding for Trump’s border wall to draw and inaccurate correlations between crime and immigration. The ads also consistently refer to undocumented immigrants using the dehumanizing term “illegals”. (For the record, research shows that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans; so-called “sanctuary cities” don’t harbor those who have committed crimes, and they’re safer than cities that don’t protect their immigrant populations; and 87% of Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.)
In Missouri, One Nation has run ads that open with the Golden Gate Bridge and a statement that San Francisco is a “sanctuary city”, defined as “safe harbor for criminal illegals” — a statement that is as false as it is dehumanizing. A Hispanic man with face tattoos is shown adjacent to Senator Claire McCaskill with a claim that she defends “sanctuary cities” and “voted for amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants” (as footage of a nondescript person jumping a fence and breaking into a run displays).
An ad run by the Senate Leadership Fund is strikingly similar. It too admonishes McCaskill for defending “sanctuary cities” and falsely asserts that such policies protect criminals, before admonishing her for supporting “amnesty”.
Kevin Cramer, the Republican challenger to incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, has fully embraced the GOP’s divide and distract strategy. He ran an ad that begins with a man being arrested with “ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION” covering the entire screen. It goes on to show Hispanic men being arrested while Cramer makes false and misleading statements about “sanctuary cities.”
GOP allies supporting Cramer are also doubling down on the strategy. Vice President Pence announced he would cut an ad attacking Heitkamp. And the Senate Leadership Fund ran an ad using the same footage of a nondescript person jumping a fence and breaking out into a run while the ad chides Heitkamp for supporting “amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants”. The ad even includes an image of the Golden Gate Bridge in a section attacking “sanctuary cities.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee also has an ad attacking Heitkamp, targeting her for supporting “sanctuary cities” and concluding with a picture of Heitkamp against the phrase, “Liberals Fight Trump, Illegals Get a Free Pass”.
One Nation has two separate ads attacking immigrants and Heitkamp. One ad running on Facebook is almost an identical copy of the ad ran against McCaskill. In another, they assail Heitkamp for not supporting funding for Trump’s border wall and supporting “amnesty”. In the background of the ad, an ominous hooded figure walking alone on a street brandishes a knife. The ad ends with calling for Heitkamp to “stop dangerous sanctuary cities.”
One Nation ran an ad in West Virginia admonishing Democrat Joe Manchin for not supporting funding for Trump’s border wall and supporting laws that would have extended a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. Their ad shows brown-skinned men scaling walls and running through bushes while Manchin’s face appears adjacent to text reading “Voted for Immigration Bill, GIVING AMNESTY to MILLIONS of LAWBREAKERS”. The ad also features footage of Trump calling for a border wall, followed by a quote from Manchin saying, “I’m not voting for the wall”.
In February 2018, Republican Mike Braun released a hugely controversial ad that politicized the death of Uber driver and attempted to blame the actions of an individual on an entire community. Braun pulled the ad in March after strong criticism from the widow of the victim.
Last month, Braun’s allies at One Nation launched new ads, one of which begins with footage of ominous hooded figure walking alone on a street brandishing a knife. The ad then reprimands Donnelly for support for “amnesty for illegal immigrants, criminals, drunk drivers, domestic violence” — highlighting a mailer where Donnelly said the opposite. A separate ad again admonishes Donnelly over support for “amnesty”, next to footage of brown-skinned men climbing fences and running through bushes.
One Nation has run at least two ads in Arizona, both attacking immigrants. One hits Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema for supporting “sanctuary cities”, which they falsely define as a “ban on local police working with federal officers to deport criminal illegal immigrants” and “creating safe havens for criminals”. The ad continues with an ominous hooded figure overlaid with text saying “Innocent Americans are Victimized”.
The other ad One Nation ran was in support of Republican candidate Martha McSally, which begins with the highly politicized death of Kate Steinle, and ends with an ominous hooded figure walking alone on a street brandishing a knife.
Over the last two months Democrat Beto O’Rourke has steadily closed his gap in the polls against Republican Ted Cruz, making Texas’ Senatorial contest a neck and neck race. These recent gains appear to have prompted Cruz to switch tactics and adopt the divide and distract strategy. Cruz’s campaign began running an ad that flashes news reports highlighting three examples of immigrant crime, in an attempt to demonize the whole community. “It seems that ‘Lyin’ Ted’ has now also become ‘Xenophobic Ted’”, said Mario Carrillo, Texas State Director of America’s Voice. “His latest ad that attacks immigrants and goes against the value of inclusion that Texans hold dear. Cruz is adopting the 2018 GOP campaign strategy by maligning immigrants.”