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Nativist Messaging Largely Falls Flat In Races Across New York And New Jersey

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In New York and New Jersey, Republican candidates and other anti-immigrant actors sought to use nativism to boost themselves over the finish line against Democratic opponents during the 2023 elections. They tried to frame the arrival of migrant families as an existential threat to their communities and states. In New York City, ugly protests against asylum-seekers even turned violent. But mirroring results seen in previous elections, and as our research previously shown, that anti-immigrant effort largely fell flat.

First, New York. Despite the state’s long history of welcoming immigrants, arriving migrant families were met with disturbing protests ginned up by cynical opportunists that began to escalate in the months leading up to the elections. While it’s true that there has been contention between the Biden administration and local officials about how to handle the strains of arrivals (many of these families were bused to the region under a political scheme by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott), clearer heads argued for a solution-oriented approach that included expanding work permits. 

But it was the anti-immigrant actors who often dominated the headlines, holding vile protests that included Staten Island locals – some waving American flags – chanting “go home!” and making obscene gestures at migrants who’d been transported to the site by local officials.

Still, nativism wasn’t the silver bullet for Republicans. In the race for county executive of Erie County, Republican Chrissy Casilio waged what The Buffalo News described as “an aggressive tear-down campaign” against incumbent Democrat Mark Poloncarz for his stance initially welcoming migrants. “He called those who refused to help ‘morally repugnant,’” and forcefully accused Republicans of “race-baiting” on the issue, The New York Times reported. “‘Most people in Erie County will have never come in contact with a migrant, with an asylum seeker,’ he said in an interview, adding that Ms. Casilio was using the issue ‘to scare people.’” 

The voters appeared to agree. Poloncarz was elected to an “unprecedented” fourth term as county executive, defeating Casilio by nearly 20 points as of publishing time. No one credible can argue that a strategy that ends up in a 20-point loss is the secret sauce for tough races. Arguably some of the most potent conditions existed for Republicans’ nativist strategy to work and it still failed. As it failed in 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022.        

In the open seat for the New York City Council’s 43rd District, Republican candidate Ying Tan released a Facebook ad stoking up anxieties around some stresses facing the city under migrant arrivals. But in a sign of her unseriousness around this complex issue, Tan’s first call to action in the ad was to demand that the Biden administration “close the border immediately.” Not only has the southern border never been more funded, our polling has shown that disinformation that the border is open only fuels migration from Central America. 

The messaging was ultimately unsuccessful, with Democratic candidate Susan Zhuang defeating Tan and a second Republican challenger.

In a big election on the New York City council, Democrat turned-Republican Ari Kagan lost to Democrat Justin Brannan after Kagan had made opposition to the newly arrived migrants in the city a part of his campaign.   

In New Jersey, an anti-immigrant ad also attacked Democratic Assemblyman Paul Moriarty over migrant arrivals, as well as his support for Dreamers and safer cities policies that create greater trust between local law enforcement and immigrant communities. Mirroring efforts seen elsewhere, the advertising sought to divide New Jerseyians, as well as create the false perception that migrants were being preferred over white voters. The advertising also failed, with Moriarty defeating his GOP challenge and winning election to New Jersey’s senate.

Of course, this was not an across the board wipeout for Republicans, who were successful in races in New York’s Suffolk County. This region has already been trending red and been very competitive for the past several years. However, there are still important lessons that Democrats can learn here, notably that mimicking GOP anti-immigrant talking points won’t save you in tough races. Dave Calone, for example, ran as a Democrat for Suffolk County Executive but positioned himself as GOP-lite when it came to the immigration issue, opposing so-called sanctuary cities and stating “he would join Republicans to block any effort to relocate migrants from New York City,” The New York Times reported. He lost his race anyway.

Of course, Tuesday night’s results appear to show that restrictive policies against reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights were on the minds of voters, and subsequently played a huge role in the progressive wins seen throughout election night in states including Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky. As Greg Sargent noted in his Washington Post column, “the right’s culture war has fizzled.” In recent Kentucky and Virginia elections, anti-immigrant attacks were a major part of GOP campaigns. This year, the issue was barely mentioned. 

While some Republicans sought to make immigration a cudgel issue anyway, as we’ve seen in the recent cycles, GOP fear-mongering and nativism mostly failed to resonate beyond the MAGA base. And as we head into a national election cycle next year, nobody knows exactly what will happen but some things seem likely. Republicans are likely to learn nothing from their losses, continuing to double down on their investment in a nativist strategy to the determinant of their own power but, more importantly, at the direct expense of the American people.