Election night 2023 was a very good night for Democrats across the country, again exceeding expectations as voters across the country turned out in an election that was a resounding rebuke of the extreme anti-choice politics of Republicans. At America’s Voice, we have closely tracked GOP campaign ads and rhetoric for years, which has allowed us a deep understanding of the GOP political messaging as it relates to immigration, its success – or frankly, the lack thereof – as an electoral strategy as well as other issues they are pushing. Over the past few cycles, we’ve also seen GOP ads take on a more sinister and xenophobic tone, often promoting white nationalist conspiracy theories like the “great replacement,” which is often reflected in the official capacity of elected officials at hearings and statements on Capitol Hill
In the context of the last several years of elections, here are four key takeaways from this cycle:
- The evidence continues to mount that the nativist attacks are not as potent as the right believes them to be in general elections.
- Despite national Republicans’ obsession with anti-immigrant attacks, they mostly didn’t focus on the issue in competitive 2023.
- Strategic bigotry continues to reveal its decreasing efficacy and can be a liability.
- Voter suppression is central for a party committed to extremism.
1. The evidence continues to mount that the nativist attacks are not as potent as the right believes them to be in general elections: Tune into the right-wing media bubble or listen to Republican members of Congress or the GOP presidential candidates, and it is abundantly clear that xenophobic demagoguery is a top messaging priority. Media Matters found Fox News has aired at least 2,701 immigration-related segments on their channel so far this year alone, not counting any weekend programming. America’s Voice also identifies dozens of anti-immigrant social media posts from Republican members of Congress every day. Nearly every week this year, the House has been in session and they have had a Speaker at the helm, the Republican majority has held an anti-immigrant hearing. Or see how their extreme nativist agenda remains the centerpiece of the extractive demands for supporting short-term funding packages to keep the government open and provide critical aid to allies.
Last week, the New York Times featured two New York county commissioner races that they predicted would turn on immigration issues to the detriment of the Democratic candidates. In particular, the Times story focussed on the Erie County executive race where “this fall in attack ads blanketing the airwaves in Erie County as Republicans try to turn the migrant crisis gripping the state into a political cudgel to flip perhaps the most important elected office in western New York.” The incumbent Democrat won by 20 points (more on New York and New Jersey races HERE).
Below, we analyze additional 2023 races, but the overall takeaway is that predictions of the Democratic Party’s demise because of immigration are premature.
Why this matters: Pundits, pollsters, and political observers are all sending the message that Democrats should be terrified of the immigration issue and that supporting anything short of a Republican or Republican-lite position is a huge electoral liability. As Democrats in the Senate – and the White House – contemplate trading aid for Ukraine or Israel or keeping the government open in the short-run by dealing away severe restrictions on asylum that would bar most people seeking safety from being able to do so legally, they are acting at least partially on this conventional wisdom.
Anti-immigrant messages and opposition to immigration may well deliver for Republicans in a general election in 2024, we can’t predict the future, but all of the evidence from this year and the past years since 2016 (eg: 2018, 2020, and 2022) indicate that immigration works mainly to motivate the MAGA-fied Republican base in primaries and has more often than not, failed to deliver for Republicans in a general election.
2. Despite national Republicans’ obsession with anti-immigrant attacks, they mostly didn’t focus on the issue in competitive 2023: If Republican candidates, particularly in red states, believed the Stephen Miller strategy of hyper-aggressive nativist attacks was a silver bullet, they would have used it. They didn’t. Take the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Daniel Cameron, in Kentucky. While he didn’t shy away from the nativist positioning of his party, he did not make xenophobic attack ads a central part of his strategy. That was likely a wise decision even as Cameron still came up with the “L”, as Democrat Andy Beshear defeated Republican incumbent Governor Matt Bevin, who relied heavily on a nativist attack strategy in 2019.
America’s Voice’s ad and message tracking project, however, found little of this message strategy being adopted by the Republican state and local candidates up for election in 2023. There were, of course, some anti-immigrant attacks, particularly in New York and New Jersey races, but compared to the focus of the national Republican party and especially compared to previous cycles, these attacks were hardly a factor in a number of general election matchups in the 2023 cycle. This vast disparity in the strategy should not go unnoticed.
In Virginia legislative races, a key battleground where a MAGA governor who sent state troops to the border was seeking to take control of the legislature, the supposed secret weapon of the Republicans, “border security and open borders” immigration attacks scarcely got a mention in any competitive race, despite huge advertising spending. MAGA extremism and opposition to abortion rights carried the day for Democrats as they maintained control of the Senate and gained control of the House in Richmond. In races in Mississippi and Kentucky, immigration was also not the central focus of Republicans.
This stands in stark contrast to what we have observed over the past several cycles. In 2017, immigration was the dominant issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race, and the strategy backfired on Republicans. In 2019, immigration was again a dominant issue in Virginia and New Jersey state legislative races, and the attacks failed to deliver. That same year in Kentucky and Louisiana, deep red states, the Republican gubernatorial candidates made xenophobic attacks a centerpiece of their campaigns and lost. In 2021, Republican Glenn Youngkin switched racial dog-whistle tactics from the anti-immigrant ones that had brought repeated losses but where state legislative candidates ran the anti-immigrant playbook, it largely failed. This year, even anti-immigrant zealots like Louisiana’s Jeff Landry did not make anti-immigrant attacks a central part of their campaigns. And where they did in New York and New Jersey they largely failed.
In New York and New Jersey, where Republicans have been giddily demagoguing the challenges of housing newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers, these attacks largely failed to deliver. Nor could the conditions have likely been any more favorable for a nativist strategy to work, with an increase in arrivals at the border, a Democratic mayor making ugly xenophobic comments about the newly arrived migrants, and constant national media attention to the issue. Yet Republicans were unable to put substantial wins on the board using that strategy and even lost ground in New Jersey. For some more detail on these races, check out Gabe Ortíz’s analysis HERE.
Why this matters: As all the data from 2022 suggests, the fearmongering surrounding migration and the border worked for the GOP base but failed to register for the larger electorate. Republicans, particularly on the national level have continued an isolating trend of doubling down on the issue as they work themselves to ever-increasingly extreme positions. The losses of the last cycle did not force a change in focus, nor is it likely that the fact that state and local candidates in tough races did not pick up on the anti-immigrant strategy will convince the GOP at the national level to take a different approach. So despite the lessons the elections can bring, we are likely to see more of the nativist strategy next year as well.
3. Strategic bigotry continues to reveal its decreasing efficacy and can be a liability: While most candidates refrained from the constant barrage of anti-immigrant attacks, Daniel Cameron and some state legislative races in Virginia turned to demonizing the LGBT community with the similar hope that fear and resentment would help propel them to victory. As a headline from the Lexington Herald-Leader squarely put it: “Anti-trans sentiment has been a pillar of Cameron’s campaign for governor. Will it backfire?” The statement from the Human Rights Campaign following the election provided the clear answer: “efforts to use transgender people as political pawns failed.” Cameron and Republicans thought they could exploit the issue after Governor Beshear vetoed a GOP lead effort to ban access to gender-affirming health care. Beyond Cameron’s campaign itself the Republican Governors Association and their associated state-based PAC ran anti-LGBT attack ads against Beshear. Media Matters LGBTQ Program Director Ari Drennen noted on Blue Sky that the hard-right American Principles Project also used anti-trans personality Riley Gaines as part of a $2 million dollar campaign to attack Beshear. Cameron also had a fundraising dinner where Gaines was a featured speaker. But all of this strategic bigotry was not enough for the Republicans to pull out a win in this deeply red state.
Significant wins in school board races across the country present another indication strategic bigotry failed to deliver this cycle. Reportedly, the hard-right national group Moms For Liberty lost about 80% of their races nationally in elections this week after their campaigns pushing for book bans and anti-LGBT messages backfired. “In Minnesota, all four candidates put forward by MfL were wiped out in the race for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District. None of them managed to attract double-digit support, with voters predominantly favoring three incumbents and one newcomer to the school board,” Daily Beast reported.
Why this matters: The fact that strategic bigotry is not providing the same boost to positions of power that it once had is important and welcome news. Republicans have run this strategy before and will do so again, likely to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in 2024. But the strategy here is largely the same whether the attack is directed at the trans community, immigrants or any Other they can demonize and dehumanize as the villain to distract from the complete lack of an affirmative agenda. However, this election brings fresh evidence that strategic bigotry isn’t a silver bullet. These dog-whistle attacks still remain potent tools for those who seek power through fear and division but this strategy can be defeated. These bigoted attacks are rarely isolated, those running on fear and division by attacking the LGBT community are often the same individuals running on fear against migrants or attacking access to abortion and it appears that there is an emerging majority rejecting poison pill politics.
4. Voter suppression is central for a party committed to extremism: In Mississippi, where Republican Tate Reeves won a surprisingly close reelection to the governor’s mansion, “at least nine Hinds County polling places ran out of ballots over the course of Election Day,” reported the Mississippi Free Press. The report said that in this overwhelming Black county, at least one polling place ran out of ballots only an hour and a half after the polls opened. Excuses of unexpectedly high turnout ring hollow when such turnout was predicted ahead of election day. While there wasn’t likely an active conspiracy to short ballots and suppress votes in this particular manner, the legacy of racist disenfranchisement is surely felt. And in a state dominated by Republican leadership, they hold part of the culpability for this serious error.
In Ohio and Virginia, Republicans had a more active role in voter suppression efforts, deleting tens of thousands of voters from the registration rolls. One of many tactics that have been part of the voter suppression playbook from Republicans for years.
The fact that voter suppression efforts haven’t secured Republican wins doesn’t mean that they are not real or an active threat to the American promise of a multiracial democracy. These efforts are not new and the more “L”s that Republicans record, the more attractive these efforts can look.
Why this matters: Republicans are approaching two decades without winning the popular vote and have been consistently underperforming expectations. Instead of reforming its agenda to achieve a majority appeal, the GOP has done the opposite, fostering internal competition that drives support for more and more extreme positions. Increasingly concerned solely with the positions of a radicalized base, limiting access to the ballot box and other anti-democratic and voter suppression tactics will be the main vehicle for Republicans to seek power, whether they come in the form of a lack of investment or an active attempt by elected officials. What we saw in this cycle was not new and it is not going away, especially as the former President who attempted a violent but failed coup remains the head of the Party. And critically, from an immigration perspective, a major component of the narrative that drives the anti-democratic attacks is the great replacement theory – the racist conspiracy that claims there is an elite plot to use non-white migrants to replace the votes of whites to secure permanent Democratic majorities. Immigrants have been and will continue to be a central scapegoat around voter suppression efforts for the year ahead.