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Attacking immigrants for electoral success is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon, but Donald Trump and Stephen Miller’s 2018 midterm divide and distract strategy has almost entirely consumed the Republican Party this election cycle. This cynical political strategy seeks to scapegoat immigrants to distract from the GOP’s unpopular policies.
We wanted to take a look at how some of the most anti-immigrant members of Congress and candidates are talking about immigration. The list below provides an overview of some of their most egregious activities. There has already been enormous anti-immigrant ad activity paid for by superPACs like the Senate Leadership Fund, the Congressional Leadership Fund, One Nation and the America First Action PAC plus national political groups like the NRSC, NRCC and RGA.
This is by no means a comprehensive compilation of the bad actors this election cycle, but it includes some of the most zealous candidates who see attacking immigrants as central to their campaign. Some on this list will likely lose come November, as their anti-immigrant strategy may not work. Others, mostly in the House, are competing for overwhelmingly safe seats in the general election. Others still are in close races and it will be up to voters to decide if they will be distracted by these candidates.
Regardless of the results in November, these candidates are emblematic of the fact that an anti-immigrant sentiment is deeply entangled with the GOP. A rejection of some of these candidates at the polls will help to loosen the grip of xenophobia on the party, but its powerful grip will not likely be shaken in just one election.
Bragging about his anti-immigrant credentials, Corey Stewart has said, “I was Trump before Trump was Trump.” Stewart lost the Republican primary for governor in 2017 after a very thinly-veiled racist campaign against Ed Gillespie, whose subsequent and enthusiastic embrace of Stewart’s tactics infamously backfired in the general election.
Nevertheless, Stewart has run this year’s campaign for Senate in the same fashion. Exploiting a real problem with the MS-13 gang, Stewart has attempted to paint the entire immigrant community as culpable for the crimes of individuals. Stewart held a “Rally to Support ICE” and ran Facebook ads with an image of men covered in tattoos with a butchered quote attributed to Nancy Pelosi. He also promoted his ties to a prominent white nationalist while touting the support of a Neo-Nazi during his campaign. And Stewart has run attack ads against his Democratic opponent Tim Kaine for supporting safe cities.
Lou Barletta has been a notorious anti-immigrant politician since at least 2006, when he first teamed up with white nationalist John Tanton’s anti-immigrant network. He now sits on the board of one of Tanton’s hate groups, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). As Mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, Barletta shepherded in a failed anti-immigrant ordinance and has marked his time in Congress pushing one anti-immigrant bill after another. Considered to be one of the members of Congress most loyal to Trump, he has even defended the Trump Administration’s cruel and failed family separation policy.
Barletta has made attacks on immigrants central to his campaign for Senate, fully embracing the GOP divide and distract strategy. Barletta has called safe cities “an American nightmare”, sent out a mailer that read “America is at war”, and has described current immigration laws as encouraging murder and terrorism.
In February, Braun released an ad politicizing a tragic death in order to attack safe-city legislation. Braun was forced to pull down the ad from TV after the victim’s widow went public with the fact that Braun did not receive permission to use her late husband’s image and story in the ad. The ad remains on Braun’s YouTube page, however — and Braun’s allies have made several ad buys using ugly, anti-immigrant messages to attack Braun’s opponent, incumbent Senator Joe Donnelly.
It is only under the large and extreme shadow of Trump that Ted Cruz’s anti-immigrant views have not dominated the main stage, but he is far from moderate on the issue. Cruz has been a major voice opposing federal immigration legislation, and he was a key antagonist against DACA. And when his Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, began to close in on him in the polls this year, Cruz began running an ad that flashes news reports highlighting examples of immigrant crime in an attempt to demonize the whole community.
Marsha Blackburn, currently a Congresswoman from Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District, has been a consistent anti-immigrant politician since at least 2003, earning an overall A+ rating from NumbersUSA — an organization in white nationalist John Tanton’s anti-immigrant network. In 2015, she sponsored an amendment to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which passed by nine votes.
Blackburn has fully embraced the divide and distract strategy in her Senate race and made immigration restrictions the center of her campaign. She ran an ad attacking her Democratic opponent, Phil Bredesen, for supporting photo IDs for undocumented immigrants and for not supporting Trump’s Muslim ban or border wall. Her ad ends with a direct-to-camera appeal where she calls for ending safe cities, building the wall, and deporting “criminal illegals.”
Martha McSally in Arizona and Matt Rosendale in Montana both have major anti-immigrant ads running. Both ran pretty similar ads calling for an end to safe cities, strengthening the border patrol, and building Trump’s border wall.
Barbara Comstock, in her previous two elections to Congress, didn’t make immigration and race-baiting a key component of her campaigns. But that changed this year with her all-out embrace of the GOP divide and distract strategy. In one of her ads, a headline Comstock uses references a crime committed in New York, not Virginia. In a column titled, “Barbara Comstock mimics Ed Gillespie and Corey Stewart,” the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin noted, “By running the ad, she has signaled that the only way she thinks she can get elected is by ginning up the far-right GOP base. It didn’t work for Gillespie, and it’s not likely to work any better for her.”
Dana Rohrabacher has been in Congress since 1989 and has consistently pushed anti-immigrant policies over the decades. In 1994, Rohrabacher supported the controversial anti-immigrant Prop. 187, which generated a lasting backlash widely credited for solidifying California’s progressive turn. But even as the state has changed around him, Rohrabacher has continued to attack immigrants and blow racist dog whistles. Rohrabacher once threatened a Dreamer and has continually invoked racist ideas about people from China. In a video at the top of his campaign website, Rohrabacher warned of a threat to “our way of life” because California is allegedly sending “an invitation for criminals from all over the world to come here.”
Taking a seat in Congress in 2008, Duncan Hunter has been a reliable vote for the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican party. But after being indicted for the misuse of $250,000 in campaign funds, Hunter jumped head-first into an immigrant-bashing campaign in an attempt to distract voters. He ran a false, blatantly Islamophobic, and racist ad against his Democratic opponent Ammar Campa-Najjar. The ad attempts to link Campa-Najjar to terrorism, referencing his grandfather who was linked to the terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympics. Campa-Najjar’s grandfather died 16 years before Campa-Najjar was born and was estranged for that side of his family growing up. Campa-Najjar had also previously denounced that attack and was granted a security clearance to work inside the White House — a clearance Hunter would be unable to obtain because of his indictment. The ad goes on to make the ominous, but ridiculous, claim that Campa-Najjar is “working to infiltrate Congress” in a plot with the Muslim-Brotherhood — Campa-Najjar was born and remains a Christian.
It is not a surprise that if you Google “most racist member of Congress,” Steve King’s name is at the top of the search results. King has repeatedly made infamous racist comments, going as so far as to retweet Nazis. King has characterized undocumented immigration as a “slow-motion terrorist attack” and once compared Dreamers to drug runners. He has been in Congress since 1997 and has gained national infamy for his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and racist beliefs. King is increasingly growing out-of-step with his district and state, however, as immigrants grow more and more essential to the economy in Iowa, providing the labor for meatpacking, poultry, and dairy industries.
Dave Brat unseated House Majority leader Eric Cantor in 2014 on the momentum generated by the Tea Party movement. Brat’s victory over Cantor marked a convincing turn in the GOP towards far-right and extreme anti-immigrant sentiment.
This year, as Brat’s race has become more competitive, he has predictably used fear-monger tactics against immigrants to try and hold onto his seat. Attempting to exploit real problems with the MS-13 gang, Brat criticized his Democratic opponent, Abigail Spanberger for saying it was “dehumanizing” for the President to call immigrants “animals.” Brat also ran an ad attacking Spanberger for supporting safe cities.
John Rose is running to replace Diane Black in Tennessee as she runs for Governor. Rose will likely win this safe seat, but he has still run some of the most vicious and over the top anti-immigrant ads of this campaign cycle. One of his 30 second ads begins with an ominous voice that asks the rhetorical question, “Mexican drug lords, MS-13 gang members, sex traffickers, do they run our border or do we?” The question is followed by declarations of Rose’s support for Trump and his wall, ending safe cities, and prosecuting “illegal immigrants.” His ads show that he will quickly join the ranks of the House’s worst anti-immigrant crusaders if he goes to Washington next year.
Current Congressman Clay Higgins (LA-03) and Mo Brooks (AL-05) will both likely return to Congress in January but are worth noting as rabid anti-immigrant members of the House. Their names are worth remembering as they continue to support and push for the most inhumane anti-immigrant policies coming out of the Trump Administration. Higgins, Brooks, and several other members of Congress also turned up at the hate group FAIR’s annual conference this year.
Kris Kobach has built a national reputation as anti-immigrant politician and lawyer. A frequent but unofficial adviser to Trump on immigration issues, Kobach was partially responsible for the Muslim ban, adding the anti-immigrant citizenship question to the 2020 census, and state policies designed to make the lives of immigrants unbearable.
Unsurprisingly, Kobach has made attacking immigrants a central part of his campaign for governor. He has repeatedly used debunked statistics from the hate group FAIR, falsely blamed undocumented students for rising tuition costs, called for immediate end to DACA for Dreamers, and made other false claims demonizing immigrants.
Ron DeSantis, a member of Congress before running for Governor, received an A+ rating from NumbersUSA and may be running one of this year’s most suck-up-to-Trump campaign ads in a piece that shows, among other things, DeSantis building a wall out of blocks with his kids.
DeSantis’ comments and allies have fully embraced an effort to inflame and divide voters. Shortly after Andrew Gillum won his surprise victory in the Democratic primary, DeSantis went on Fox News to tell Floridians to not “monkey this up” — a comment widely interpreted to be racist. DeSantis also shared a video of himself on YouTube speaking to a crowd, where he calls Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “this girl” and butchers the pronunciation of her Hispanic last name to laughter from his audience.
Brian Kemp won a Republican Party primary that appeared to be a competition for who could attack immigrants the most viciously. Kemp ran an ad where he said, “I got a big truck just in case in need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself” — followed immediately by “yup, I just said that,” in full acknowledgment that his statement was highly offensive. Kemp ran another ad that begins by listing off three highly politicized tragic crimes followed by a statement in support of Trump and a call for an end to safe cities.
Diane Black spent her career in Congress pushing anti-immigrant policies, leading her to receive an A+ from NumbersUSA. Black ran an ad that begins with an ominous voiceover, “liberals won’t enforce immigration laws,” followed by Black telling the camera directly that she would end safe cities, force local law enforcement to work as immigration agents “or else,” ban in-state tuition for undocumented students, and support Trump’s border wall. Black also ran a more folksy ad that focused on the misleading anti-immigrant talking point of “catch and release.”