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For the Third Straight Election Cycle, the GOP Relied on Xenophobia. For the Third Straight Election Cycle, It Failed.

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“Three strikes and you’re out”

Following Trump’s victory in 2016, some in the political class concluded that his reliance on xenophobia reflected magical powers of insight into the American electorate. 

This, in turn, led some pundits to predict that in the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial contest Republican Ed Gillespie’s reliance on ugly MS-13 ads would power him to victory. He lost by 9 points. 

Undeterred, some pundits predicted that in the 2018 midterms the Trump/GOP strategy of racial incitement and caravan hysteria would, once again, show the Dear Leader possessed a special genius. Instead, Republicans suffered the worst midterm loss in American history.

In 2019, a number of very Trumpy Kentucky and Virginia Republicans relied on xenophobia, once again. And once again, the strategy failed.  


Republican Governor Matt Bevin hoped ugly anti-immigrant attack ads (and a late Trump rally) would save his bid for reelection. He lost to Democrat Andy Beshear in the night’s top upset.

  • One Bevin ad involves men climbing over a wall, groups of heavily tattooed Latino men, and menacing hordes of scary immigrants, with a voiceover saying “Andy Beshear would allow illegal immigrants to swarm our state.”
  • Another Bevin ad claimed Beshear “won’t stop sanctuary cities” over images of people scaling a fence and running.

“Putting Kentucky First PAC” — which is aligned with the Republican Governor’s Association — put out three xenophobic ads in support of Bevin:

  • An ad using the Sheriff of Grayson County to attack immigrants, saying “I have seen how illegal immigration is destroying families by bringing heroin into our communities.” The Sheriff called for a ban on “sanctuary cities” and attacked Beshear for not supporting such a ban.
  • Another ad begins with footage from the first Democratic presidential debate with the raise-your-hand question about healthcare for undocumented immigrants. The ad then warns about giving “taxpayer-funded healthcare to illegal immigrants.”
  • Another ad attacks Democrat Andy Beshear for not opposing “sanctuary cities” as well as impeachment, socialism, and healthcare for those who don’t work.


Virginia is fully transformed from a red state into a blue state, in spite of some GOP campaigns  leaning heavily on xenophobia as a central campaign strategy.

  • In House District 21, the Virginia Republican State Party sent a virulently anti-immigrant mass mailer with the Democrat’s image next to tattooed photos of tattooed gang members in prison in El Salvador. Nevertheless, Democrat Kim Convirs-Fowler defeated Republican Shannon Kane.
  • In Prince William County, formerly the epicenter of xenophobic policy and politics in the state, the infamous Trumpy and neo-confederate Corey Stewart was replaced as Board Supervisor by Democrat Ann Wheeler.
  • Ghazala Hashmi became the first Muslim-American elected to Virginia’s State Senate, turning attacks that divide into a unifying upset campaign. She unseated a Republican incumbent in an upset win. In an April blog post on Medium, Hashmi described her terror as she watched the Trump administration roll out its racist immigration agenda ― and how that fueled her desire to run for office.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice: 

Three strikes and you’re out. In three straight elections — 2017, 2018 and 2019 — the GOP has relied on racial incitement and xenophobia, and in three straight elections, the strategy has failed. 

The GOP is so dominated by Trump and so taken with his demonization and dehumanization of immigrants and refugees that we have no doubt that 2020 will be the ugliest anti-immigrant campaign in modern American history. As Republicans gear up to spend billions on such a strategy, they may want to notice that it doesn’t seem to be working.