In 2017, Ed Gillespie, the GOP nominee for Governor, ran a viciously anti-immigrant campaign, which surprised many observers because he had been viewed as more of an establishment Republican than a Trump extremist. During the general election, instead of moving to the center in a state that had been trending blue, Gillespie followed the anti-immigrant attacks of his primary opponent, Corey Stewart, and Donald Trump. Steve Bannon believed Gillespie’s strategy would work — and would serve as a model for other Republicans. “Corey Stewart is the reason Gillespie is going to win,” Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and Trump’s campaign czar, said in an interview. “It was the Trump-Stewart talking points that got Gillespie close and even maybe to victory. It was embracing Trump’s agenda as personified by Corey’s platform.”
Northam lost. Badly.
Instead of re-evaluating their strategy, Republicans doubled down on racism and xenophobia in 2018. In May 2018, Trump advisor Stephen Miller told Breitbart News, “The big fight this summer is going to be with the open borders Democratic caucus in Congress. That is the fundamental political contrast and political debate that is unfolding right now. The Democratic Party is at grave risk of completely marginalizing itself from the American voters…”
The Trump-Miller strategy of focusing on immigration and migrant caravans was the central theme of Republican campaigns in 2018. Even after an October gun massacre in Pittsburgh inspired by anti-immigrant messaging, Republicans kept running xenophobic ads.
Among the field that year were two of Trump and Miller’s most vocal allies: Kris Kobach was running for Governor of Kansas while Lou Barletta was running for Senate in Pennsylvania. Those two have a long intertwined history of anti-immigrant activism that began when Barletta was Mayor of Hazelton Pennsylvania and hired Kobach as his lawyer to push an anti-immigrant ordinance. It was an early start for Kobach’s string of legal losses, which ended up costing the city of Hazelton millions of dollars in legal fees.
As in 2017, the anti-immigrant campaigns backfired on Republicans, and Democrats won by the largest midterm margin in American history. Two of the big losers were Kobach and Barletta.
After losing big in 2018 running on xenophobic dog-whistles, the GOP is preparing to run this strategy again in 2022. And little shows this redux more than two of 2018’s biggest losers and xenophobes, Kris Kobach and Lou Barletta running again for statewide office. Kobach is running for Attorney General of Kansas, and Barletta is making a bid for Governor of Pennsylvania in 2022. Over the last two decades, both of these men brought anti-immigrant zealotry from the margins to the mainstream at the Republican Party. But 2018 Midterms voters rejected them and their ideas by wide margins. It’s worth revisiting this recent history to get a glimpse of what the 2022 midterms might have in store.
Kris Kobach is a far-right radical and perpetual political candidate who often rubs shoulders and takes donations from white nationalists. Kobach was a leading figure driving anti-immigrant legislative and court battles for ‘attrition through enforcement’- or creating conditions for undocumented immigrants so bad and cruel they would be forced to leave. Or “self-deportation,” as the 2012 Republican candidate for President Mitt Romney put it, after having Kobach as an advisor. Kobach’s work included Arizona’s notorious show-me-your papers law and similar legislation in Alabama. And he was also key in helping to attack DACA in the courts. For over a decade, the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a hate group, helped to fund Kobach’s traveling salesman pitch of anti-immigrant model legislation.
After Trump’s ill-fated election commission failed and denied a post at DHS, Kobach settled on a run for governor. To no one’s surprise, Kobach put xenophobic dog-whistles front and center. One of the attacks at the center of his campaign was to promote the repeal of a Kansas law so that undocumented students who graduated high school in the state would be priced out of the state’s colleges and universities. Kobach eked out a win with a couple of hundred votes in the Republican primary but then went on to lose a statewide race in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one.
Similarly, Kobach ran and lost a GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat in 2020, running on xenophobic dog-whistles. Coming off the loss for governor in the deep red state, Mitch McConnell and apparently many Kansas Republican primary voters felt that Kobach’s aggressive style and white nationalist connections made him a general election liability.
In spite of his repeated losses for statewide office, Kobach will most assuredly not moderate his tone, radical far-right activism, or putting anti-immigrant politics at the forefront of his campaign. His camping launch confirmed as much as he framed his run as a bid to solely use the state resources to sue the Biden administration for anything and everything they do.
But he might have one additional hurdle running for attorney general in that he is a terrible lawyer. He has a long track record of failure in the courts and was even mandated to attend remedial legal classes by the court.
Lou Barletta is an anti-immigrant zealot who has long made a political name for himself attacking immigrants and intimately entangling himself in the network of anti-immigrant organizations created by white nationalist John Tanton. As noted, he first gained the national spotlight in 2006 for an anti-immigrant law he ushered in as mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania — with the assistance of Kris Kobach. Their law was quickly overturned by the courts and left his small city with millions in legal fees. Refusing to learn from that mistake, he has since continued to stake out the most extreme anti-immigrant positions and cavort with hate groups.
Barletta previously represented Pennsylvania 11th Congressional district, where he became a leading Trump cheerleader, before running for Senate with Trump’s endorsement. Barletta has made attacking safe-city legislation a centerpiece of his campaign and has called it “an American nightmare.” He sent out a mailer that read “America is at war” and has described current immigration laws as encouraging murder and terrorism.
However, Pennsylvania voters were not convinced by Barletta’s brand of xenophobia and handed him a massive 13 point loss.
The 2022 Midterm Setup
Even before Joe Biden was sworn into office, leading Republicans were plotting to use the border and predictable seasonal increase in migration as a cynical political tool against the new administration. And In spite of the facts on the ground, the GOP has been charging ahead with a coordinated effort to use immigration as a main wedge issue. They have been quite vocal and public about this strategy.
On February 23 on ‘Hannity,’ Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “I predict this, that immigration will be a bigger issue in 2022 than it was in 2016.” The next day, the Washington Post quoted white nationalist and top GOP strategist Stephen Miller saying, “From a purely political standpoint, [immigration] is a recipe for Democrats to have a historic drubbing in the midterms if we can make it even as big an issue or bigger than Obamacare.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump ally, also said, “If they don’t control this, it’ll be a huge issue this year, and it’s an issue that gets you into public health, into the issue of defending America and whether there are borders.” Essentially Miller and Gingrich are saying the GOP should use the border as a political prop with a racist lie to blame immigrants for spreading the virus and increasing crime.
Candidates and party organizations have fully embraced this strategy. Elected Republicans have been making trip after trip to the border to cosplay as border agents riding on gunboats in tourist locations as part of a fundraising photo op. The National Republican Committee and other party committees in Congress have already been running targeted ads using similar xenophobic messages as in 2018.
But as the GOP has turned into a post-policy party divide and distract tactics are likely all they have left. It is telling that proud anti-immigrant zealots, and proven losers like Kobach and Barletta still believe they can play a prominent role in the party in the future. Though not surprising, given the GOP’s full embrace of xenophobic dog-whistle politics, they helped pioneer. It should be noted, however, that just because this is the strategy they appear wedded to does not mean it is a winning one, especially in a general election outside the deepest of red districts.
Don’t Fall Into the Trap
The past is not always an accurate predictor of the future. If the Republican voter suppression schemes are successful in lowering voter participation and a GOP base is juiced up on coded racial division, fear, and competition, this xenophobic stratgey might have more success this time around. It too could be more effective if Democrats fall into the GOP trap by either failing to deliver promised popular immigration reform efforts like a pathway to citizenship for our neighbors already living in the U.S. or run as ‘Republican-lite’ and adapt their messaging frame. To help ensure that the xenophobic dog-whistle politics again backfires on Kobach, Barletta, and the GOP overall, we have to call out the zero-sum game of racial division, organize on the ground now, and elected Democrats have to be bold and deliver real improvements in the lives of all Americans.