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When Will GOP Candidates Learn that Scapegoating Immigrants Won’t Work?

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Since the election of Donald Trump a number of other Republicans have tried to mimic his style of anti-immigrant ugliness to win elected office. But, many of their attempts have failed or backfired, showing repeatedly that — despite Trump’s election — attacking immigrants is not a path to electoral victory. After over a dozen electoral losses, the viability of this strategy should be in serious doubt and those seeking elected office should think twice about using this fraught path. Instead, Trump and his top aide, Stephen Miller, have vowed to double down on this strategy and infuse it into the 2018 GOP campaigns.

With that in mind, here are a number of the recent elections from around the country where voters showed the ugly anti-immigrant strategy to be a losing one:


The Virginia’s 2017 governor’s race is clear case of an anti-immigrant strategy backfiring, as evidenced by the results and election eve polling conducted by Latino Decisions. Republican Ed Gillespie was pulled to the right during a contested primary with Corey Stewart (now the GOP candidate for Senate), but in the general election Gillespie doubled down on the anti-immigrant attacks rather than move to the center. His campaign tried to use the threat of the international gang MS-13 as the lens to view all Latino immigrants, and tried to claim that Democratic candidate Ralph Northam was weak on crime. Gillespie pressed the issue  attacking ‘sanctuary cities’, of which there are none in the state. This strategy backfired among voters of nearly every demographic, and Northam won by 9 points. As Matt Barreto from Latino Decisions wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

By a 23-point margin (52 to 29), whites in Virginia also said the MS-13 ads turned them away from Mr. Gillespie, as did African-American and Asian-American voters by larger margins.

Data speaks louder than punditry, and our regression analysis of survey data paints a clear picture. Exposure to Mr. Gillespie’s MS-13 ads actually helped drive white college-educated voters away from the Republicans. When we analyzed findings for white independents and Republicans, voters who were aware of the MS-13 ads were significantly more likely to vote for Mr. Gillespie’s Democratic opponent.

What made the Virginia gubernatorial race so critical is how political observers and pundits, including Steve Bannon, believed Gillespie’s strategy would work — and would serve as a model for other Republicans. The reality was that it didn’t work, but the GOP persists in using it.

It wasn’t just the Governor’s race in Virginia where racist ads were used. A number of the Republican candidates running for the Virginia state legislature followed Gillespie’s strategy and shared his failures. In HD 93, Republican Heather Cordasco also attempted to use Virigina’s nonexistent sanctuary cities in a failed effort to beat Democrat Mike Mullin. Scott Lingamfelter of HD 31 lost his seat to Democrat Elizabeth Guzman after his attempt to equate undocumented immigrants’ ability to obtain a driver’s license with violent crime. Democrat Jennifer Foy won HD 2 after an attempt to attack her support for in-state tuition for undocumented students fell flat. Overall, despite the onslaught, Democrats picked up 15 seats, narrowing the GOP’s control from 66-34 to 51-49.


An anti-immigrant strategy did not even work in the March 2018 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, which went for Donald Trump by 20 points. Democrat Conor Lamb won the seat after a super PAC connected to Republican House leadership ran TV ads that said Lamb supports “amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants … Lamb worked in the Obama administration that encouraged sanctuary cities, which put illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the street.” The Republican candidate Rick Saccone’s attempt to pit union workers against immigrants on jobs did not work either.


The anti-immigrant strategy backfired in the February 2018 special election in Florida’s House District 72. The district went in favor of Trump by 5 points in 2016, but Democrat Margaret Good won by 7 points after her Republican opponent tried to attack her pro-immigration positions using mailers that said her “very progressive beliefs on immigration” will be a “danger to us all.”

New Jersey

In a last-ditch effort to pull out a victory in the 2017 New Jersey governor’s race, Republican Kim Guadagno deployed an aggressive anti-immigrant strategy. It did not work, and Democrat Philip Murphy won. Guadagno had previously been supportive of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but wrongfully believing that attacking immigrants would turn out the Republican base, and she switched her strategy. She called for a ban on ‘sanctuary cities’ and ran TV ads that attempted to equate all Latino immigration with crime.


Injecting anti-immigrant ugliness was not a winning strategy in the December 2017 special Senate election in Alabama either. At the end of his campaign, extremist Republican Roy Moore and right-wing outlets that supported his campaign attempted to focus on ‘sanctuary cities’ and the Kate Steinle verdict to save his campaign. It did not work. Doug Jones won, making him the first Democrat to win an Alabama Senate seat in 25 years.

New York

Two different failed attempts to attack Democrats on immigration were made at the county level in New York, in races for  Nassau County executive and the 10th Assembly District seat. Democrats Laura Curran and Steve Stern, respectively, won their seats after mailers were sent using the strategy of MS-13 to scare voters and stir up anti-immigrant sentiment. The New York Times reported that Curran may have received a boost to her campaign from the backlash to the ads. One mailer featured a photo of three Latino men covered in tattoos that read “Meet Your New Neighbors!”, adding that Curran was “MS-13’s choice for county executive!” who would “roll out the welcome mat” for gangs.


In a June 2018 special election in Missouri’s 17th Senate district, Democrat Lauren Arthur defeated Republican Kevin Corlew after his anti-immigrant strategy backfired. “Robin Martinez, a 54-year-old attorney from the Village of Oaks, said that the attack ads against Arthur, including ones that linked illegal immigration to violence, turned him off Corlew’s candidacy,” the Kansas City Star reported.


Recent polls give additional support that an anti-immigrant political strategy is not a path to the majority.

  • The Gallup poll: record-high 75% think immigration is a good thing, up from last year
  • Pew poll: Democrats have 14% advantage over Republicans on issue, up from 6% last fall
  • CNN Poll: By 83-12%, Americans want dreamers protected

Those currently running for office should remember the above elections as a cautionary tale. The message voters have been sending in these elections is clear: that anti-immigrant scapegoating is a not a winning strategy.

For a more detailed analysis check our blog post, The GOP’s Failing Strategy to Win Elections By Attacking Immigrants