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Virginia Republicans Revert To Racist, Anti-Immigrant Ads — Again

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Virginians will head to the polls this November 5, to decide the fate of the closely contested state legislature. Polling suggests a race leaning in Democrats’ favor and the Republican response has been to turn to the same strategy that failed them in the last two election cycles.        

Virginia Republican candidates have once again resorted to their old playbook of immigrant-bashing in this year’s legislative race. Though this strategy has repeatedly failed, it has become their main message in the Trump era. The latest example is an ad, paid for by the Republican Party of Virginia, targeting Democratic Delegate Kelly Convirs-Fowler in House District 21, which includes parts of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach:

With the Nov. 5 elections less than two weeks away, a GOP candidate in a Virginia Beach delegate race is depicting her Democratic challenger as being aligned with members of a notorious gang from El Salvador.

In the print ad, Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler is Photoshopped next to three heavily tattooed Latino men bearing the letters “MS”, a reference to the MS-13 gang, one of the largest street gangs in the U.S., mostly comprised of immigrants from El Salvador.

As the Virginia-Pilot notes, “The photo used in the mailer was taken by Adam Hinton, who visited an El Salvadoran prison and took portraits of MS-13 gang members, according to The Guardian.” We’ve seen that same image used repeatedly by Republican candidates.

That Republicans in Virginia have resorted to racist fear-mongering shouldn’t come as a surprise given recent history. In 2017, Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie ran a series of racist, anti-immigrant ads that were echoed by his party’s state legislative candidates. While pundits and Steve Bannon predicted Gillespie would succeed because of that strategy, on election day, Gillespie lost by a larger than expected margin while Democrats picked up 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. Election Eve polling conducted by Latino Decisions found that there was an intense backlash to those negative ads. 

Matt Barreto, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Latino Decisions, highlighted some of the key takeaways of the Election Eve poll of Latinos, Asian American, African American, and white voters (see more detail at the end of this post):

  • Gillespie’s over-reliance on anti-immigrant race-baiting, such as the MS-13 ad and mailers did not work.
  • Voters were very aware that the campaign had become heavily racialized and this moved them away from Gillespie and towards Northam.
  • In the final three weeks, there was a significant increase in outreach and contact with communities of color.
  • Among people who reported seeing these ads or discussions of Gillespie as anti-immigrant, there was an overwhelming vote in favor of Northam.
  • Virginians are pro-immigration and support a welcoming policy towards immigrants.


It wasn’t just Virginia. A similar strategy was used by Republicans in New York as described by this November 5, 2017, NYT editorial, which featured the same image being used in the Virginia race:

If an amalgam of McCarthyism and the notorious Willie Horton ad suits your taste, then you want to get hold of a mailer sent to Long Island voters on behalf of the Republican candidate for Nassau County executive. As odious campaign material goes, this one is hard to beat. Yet the candidate, Jack Martins, says he firmly stands by it.

The mailer shows three shirtless Latino men, covered in tattoos and representing MS-13, the vicious gang begun by Central American immigrants in Los Angeles that now menaces Long Island. “Meet Your New Neighbors!” a headline above them says, adding this about Mr. Martins’s Democratic opponent: “Laura Curran will roll out the welcome mat for violent gangs like MS-13!” Ms. Curran, the text says, is “MS-13’s choice for county executive.”

Like Gillespie, Martin lost.

Unfazed, the national Republican party took a similar approach in 2018, focusing on immigrant-bashing. This included Virginia Republican Senate candidate Corey Stewart, who ran particularly disgusting anti-immigrant ads with one Facebook ad using the same MS-13 image as the other Virginia campaigns. Again, it failed. Trump and many Republicans relied on a closing argument that emphasized attacks on immigrants. But xenophobia backfired. Democrats won the popular vote by the largest midterm margin in history, flipping over 40 House seats, limiting Senate losses, and making huge inroads in state capitals and state legislatures. 

Again, our Election Eve polling found a backlash, as Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions explained: 

Latino, Black, Native American, and AAPI voters all agree that Trump has created an environment of hostility and racism that is directed towards immigrants and minorities, and this is mobilizing people to take action. Voters of color in particular are taking things into their own hands, reporting high rates of “self-mobilization” and encouraging their friends and family to vote.  Rather than waiting on campaigns to knock on their doors, many immigrant and minority voters are seizing the moment and mobilizing themselves, their families, and their communities. Just like we saw on Election Day in Virginia 2017, the headline of the 2018 election will be that a majority of voters do not buy racist attacks on immigrants. Instead, anti-immigrant fear mongering has backfired on Republicans and cost them the House of Representatives.

For the last two election cycles, Virginia Republicans have tried to divide voters through anti-immigrant scare tactics, a strategy that has brought back to back losses. Voters saw right through this cynical tactic but the party appears set on the same tactic in 2019, with several other Republican candidates employing this strategy as well. On November 5, we will see if Virginia voters again reject this strategy for a third time in a row.