Former President Donald Trump announced his next campaign for President at his Mar-A-Lago resort on November 15, 2022, surrounded by his most dedicated supporters. Among those in the audience was Stephen Miller, who has been by Trump’s side since 2015, and oversaw and implemented Trump’s xenophobic agenda. Much of their hateful rhetoric was again echoed in Trump’s diatribe of an announcement speech. But Miller is no longer just a Trump staffer. This year, he ran one of the largest GOP SuperPACs spewing some of the worst, vile ads from this cycle. And reportedly is giving council to Kevin McCarthy as he plots his path to the Speaker’s office. But Miller, like Trump, was a big loser in 2022.
On August 19, 2022, as the general election push was starting to get underway, the GOP’s leading political strategist, Stephen Miller, appeared on his fellow white nationalist’s show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, to lay out what he believed was the winning GOP message for 2022: “I’m for deporting illegal aliens and you’re not, so I win and you lose.”
Miller has been banging the nativist drum for a long time. He was and is convinced his zero-some apocalyptic vision of immigration will rally the GOP base, persuade independents, and depress Democratic turnout. But for most Americans, immigrants are not the existential bogeyman Miller would like us to believe. And his strategy lost big. Again and again and again.
As early as February 2021, Stephen Miller was peddling this nativist first 2022 strategy. He told the Washington Post that Republicans should make the 2022 midterms all about immigration. Referring to the 2010 midterms, Miller said, “From a purely political standpoint, this is a recipe for Democrats to have a historic drubbing in the midterms if we can make it [the southern border] even as big an issue or bigger than Obamacare.”
The GOP bought into the Miller strategy. America’s Voice’s ad tracking project found over 3,200 unique paid communications from this cycle that employed the nativist tropes Miller was calling for. And an analysis of 350 Twitter accounts of GOP candidates and elected officials from January to October of 2022 found that the border was the top topic, mentioning the border more than inflation and crime combined.
Miller and his goon squad were themselves massive players this cycle, likely spending close to $100 million on vile ads in line with Miller’s election strategy. Their main vehicle was Citizens for Sanity, which ran over $51 million in TV commercials in October. These included aggressive nativist and racist ads during the Major League Baseball playoffs and World Series that shocked and unsettled many viewers and took the hateful message to the rest of the country. Citizens for Sanity spent additional millions on digital ads, billboards, and mailers, hoping their brand of dog-whistle racism would help flip the Senate to Republicans.
It didn’t. And there is evidence that Citizens for Sanity messages worked for their base, but had a backlash effect on key constituents. The Immigration Hub tested a “Citizens for Sanity” ad on crime & immigration with battleground voters and observed a measurable backlash.
According to available information, Miller’s Citizens for Sanity spent $15.8 million in Arizona, $15.1 million in Nevada, and $5.4 million in Pennsylvania on just TV commercials attacking the Democrat Senate candidates. Miller failed to help Republicans take any of these seats. Citizens for Sanity also hit battleground Democrat Senate candidates Maggie Hassan (NH) and Raphael Warnock (GA) with their nativist, racist, and transphobic attack ads. Miller’s team also failed in New Hampshire, while Georgia is heading to a run-off with Warnock just barely missing the 50 percent threshold.
No one embraced the Miller philosophy of campaigning more than Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters. Making nativism the centerpiece of his campaign, Masters even promoted the deadly white nationalist “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracies that Miller helped mainstream. Stephen Miller’s wife, Katie Miller, was also the Masters’ campaign’s top spokeswoman and the unrelenting attention to fearmongering about the border was on display throughout the contest. The GOP-aligned committees and superPACs were also bought into the nativist first strategy, with most of their ads containing at least one xenophobic dog-whistle. In their last closing ad, the top Masters’ aligned superPAC, Saving Arizona, even parroted the “stop the insanity” tagline of Stephen Miller’s ads. Nativist attacks were also Masters’ closing message, convening a press conference with Trump’s wall as the backdrop on November 4, where he pledged to vote against every piece of proposed legislation from Democrats until the “border is secure.”
Miller also deserves additional blame for the Republican’s Pennsylvania Senate loss because of his nativist first strategy pulling Republicans to the extremes in the primaries. Miller was a top and early advisor to Republican primary candidate David McCormick. Following the Miller playbook, McCormick and his allies ran hard right, spending tens of millions of dollars on nativist, racist, and transphobic attack ads similar to the ones Citizens for Sanity would run a few months later. With Miller’s help, the primary revolved around the accusation of being a “Republican In Name Only” – a RINO – with the candidate’s veracity towards immigrants being a dominant way to signal to a radicalized GOP base they were deserving of their support.
Mehmet Oz won the GOP primary, but adopted some of Miller and McCormick’s strategy. Realizing he needed a lot more than the hardcore Republican base to win a state Biden narrowly carried in 2020, Oz quickly scrubbed Trump from his most public-facing campaign materials after winning a narrow primary victory with the support of a late Trump endorsement. But Oz could not afford to lose the nativist base he fought to win over in the primaries. In one telling example, Oz sent out a fundraising email to supporters in mid-July, again leaning into his Trump support and embracing the deadly white nationalist conspiracy about a so-called migrant “invasion.” Echoing the terrorist who murdered people in Buffalo just two months earlier, Oz apparently believed that employing the deadly lies Miller helped mainstream would gain him needed support. Miller’s nativist first strategy was also adopted in Oz campaign TV commercials and by both the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) chaired by Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) and the Senate Leader Fund (SLF) allied with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who also ran attack ads with nativist fearmongering. Democrat John Fetterman, who leaned-in to the immigration issue and whose wife is a formerly undocumented immigrant from Brazil, won the Senate seat going away.
Beyond Miller’s direct massive spending and influence, attacks on immigrants were a dominant message for Republicans in 2022. The GOP made their distorted narrative and racist attacks about the border and immigrants a cornerstone of their midterm strategy. They began this strategy even before Biden was elected. Both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy said it would be a key part of the 2022 strategy. They backed that up with massive spending by their political organizations and superPACs, including the NRSC, SLF, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), all of which ran nativist attack ads all across the country.
Miller’s predicted “red tsunami” never materialized. In an election that overwhelmingly favored Republicans, Miller’s failure should be doubly apparent.
But like any sore loser, Miller immediately looked to divert the blame from his failed strategy. After the massive failures by Republicans on election day, Miller trotted out the bald-faced lie that his “advice was not heeded.”
“Except this is literally all the GOP ran on” as the Los Angeles Times columnist Jean Guerrero, who wrote the book, “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda,” masterfully put it. “Hatemongering isn’t a sustainable political strategy.”
The 2022 midterms were not the first time Miller’s nativist first strategy failed on a massive scale, so Guerrero’s Tweet is backed by evidence.
- In August 2020, Miller told Reuters that Joe Biden’s immigration stance would prove to be “a massive political vulnerability” in the 2020 campaign. Between April and June 2020, the Trump campaign spent more on immigration ads on Facebook than on any other issue and our 2020 ad tracking project and report found that at the presidential level, Trump ran 157 unique ads that employed xenophobic messaging. Yet Biden won 306 electoral college votes and won by more than 7 million votes, while the American public broke ever-more sharply in a pro-immigrant direction.
- In 2019, Red state Republicans lost the gubernatorial mansion in Kentucky and failed to flip the seat in Louisiana after adopting the Miller nativist first playbook, making xenophobic fear-mongering a cornerstone of their respective losing campaigns.
- In May 2018, 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 GOP was fully behind the nativist first Miller election strategy in 2018. The number of immigration-related TV ads — and the amount of money spent on them — increased fivefold from 2016 to 2018. Wesleyan Media Project found that on Facebook, between August 1 and September 30, 23.3 percent of the Republican ads on the digital platform discussed immigration, while 80 percent of Republican TV ads in the cycle moved their nativist message. The Miller-led strategy of focusing on immigration and migrant caravans backfired on Republicans, who saw Democrats win by the largest midterm margin in American history.
- In 2017, Steve Bannon, Miller’s close ally and leading proponent of the nativist first election strategy, claimed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie’s embrace of aggressive nativist dog-whistling would be key to his victory. It wasn’t. He lost by 9 points. Research also found that Gillespie’s xenophobic ads backfired among all groups who saw the ad, including white voters.
The 2022 midterms should be the death knell in Miller’s nativist political strategy and should end his career as a political operative or prognosticator. It was given a platform, major candidates across the country adopted it and about $100 million later, it all came up with an ‘L’. Going forward, the GOP may drop this loser. However, that scenario seems rather unlikely. Miller’s nativist first strategy has repeatedly failed to deliver in the past, but Republicans continue to return to this playbook. And if the past is any indication of the future, Miller and his bad ideas will continue to be in the driver’s seat for the GOP throughout the next election.