tags: , , , , America’s Voice Research on Immigration Reform, Press Releases

GOP Turns to Anti-Immigrant Campaign Ads in Desperate and Divisive Effort to Hang Onto Power

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Xenophobia hasn’t worked to date; Will it Work Going Forward?

This is the lede of a Washington Post story published today:

Republican campaigns have largely abandoned touting the GOP tax law ahead of the November midterms, with many pivoting instead to divisive issues such as crime and immigration in an effort to motivate conservative voters.

Got that right. The GOP’s 2018 midterm strategy is coming into sharp focus: use racialized smears against immigrants and people of color to divide Americans, juice turnout and distract from both their horrible record on kitchen table issues and their signature “achievement” — the massive transfer of wealth from taxpayers to GOP donors.

The plan to run on xenophobia was articulated by Stephen Miller in the summer, and now the entire party is falling in line. From today’s Washington Post story:

Instead of trying to reclaim the narrative on taxes, a number of Republican candidates and campaign operatives have made the calculation that shoring up support from their base by tying Democrats to crime or illegal immigration will be more effective than a positive campaign message about tax cuts and the economy.

The outside campaign committees and super PACs that make it their mission to attack opposition candidates have led the way on that strategy.

Below we catalogue the current GOP attack ads in Senate races — Missouri, North Dakota, West Virginia, Indiana, Arizona, and now Nevada and Texas.  The ads are being run by candidates as well as by Super PACs with ties to top GOP officials like the Senate Leadership Fund, National Republican Senatorial Committee, and One Nation. More recently, the Trump affiliated Super PAC, America First Action, joined the chorus with anti-immigrant attacks ads in North Dakota’s Senate race and New York’s 22nd Congressional District. In NY-22, the Trump PAC went after Democrat Anthony Brindisi for supporting the New York State Dream Act.

Without question, the strategy is racist, cynical and desperate. But in the rough-and-tumble world of electoral politics, the question has to be asked: will it work? Will this strategy work to mobilize base voters, win over wavering Republicans, and peel off independents in a way that keeps Republicans in control of Congress?

Let’s review the record to date.

Ed Gillespie tried it in the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial race. He lost to Democrat Ralph Northum by a whopping 9 points. Here’s a post-race analysis by Greg Sargent of the Washington Post:

Geoff Garin, Northam’s pollster, told me the campaign’s internal polling confirmed that Trump is driving Democratic energy…Democratic voters and Dem-leaning independents are “engaging in politics more,” out of dismay at the ‘division and divisiveness’ that Trump is creating and out of a sense that “existential things are occurring in this country.

Gillespie attempted a double game: using Trumpist race-baiting appeals to energize the deep-red southwestern counties — Confederate statues, tattoo-festooned immigrant MS-13 gang members — while playing the temperamentally safe establishment Republican to reassure swing and more educated suburban voters…As Brian Beutler says, Gillespie papered over this problem by combining ‘the Chamber of Commerce’s policy agenda” with “an overlay of toxic racism and xenophobia.’

But Garin says the double game failed. ‘There was a very negative reaction among college-educated voters and swing voters generally to his MS-13 ads,’ he said. Meanwhile, some polling had shown the race-baiting might have energized Democratic constituencies. Gillespie’s strategy did allow him to run up enormous margins in deep-red counties. But preliminary analyses suggest he was unable to drum up the enthusiasm levels seen in Democratic strongholds. At the same time, Northam edged Gillespie among college whites, outperforming Hillary Clinton among them by six points and defying predictions by Gillespie’s pollster, who insisted that Gillespie’s immigration appeals were working on those voters.

Matt Barreto, UCLA politics professor and principal of Latino Decisions, wrote this in the New York Times (based in part on Election Eve polling sponsored by America’s Voice):

In Virginia, polling data has made it clear that Mr. Gillespie’s MS-13 rhetoric backfired among minority voters as well as, crucially, among many whites. Mr. Northam won a majority of white college-educated voters, who made up a larger share of the electorate in 2017 than they did in 2016. Mr. Gillespie matched Mr. Trump with noncollege whites, but their turnout was down. And minority voters in 2017 matched their 2016 electorate share — for the first time ever there was no drop-off from the presidential to the gubernatorial election. The Democrats also expanded their margin of victory in Virginia from five percentage points in 2016 to nine points in 2017.

Before the vote in Virginia, pundits on both the right and left were speculating that Mr. Gillespie’s anti-immigrant strategy was working. But in the end, election results and polling data in Virginia proved all that thinking was wrong. While each state has its own demographics and distinct politics, Virginia has voters who span demographic and economic spectrums. Majorities of voters of all races and ethnicities rejected anti-immigrant stereotypes as ugly and wrong.

The Virginia race is not the only race where GOP reliance on xenophobia either fell flat or backfired. In this post, we summarize how fear mongering ads aimed at disqualifying Democratic candidates did not work in other races: down ballot races in Virginia; New Jersey; Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, Alabama, and Missouri. This does not bode well for a heavy reliance on xenophobia in the home stretch to Election Day in November.

According to this piece written by  America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry in early September:

Republicans can’t run on healthcare because they are dismantling it. They can’t run on education because they are defunding it. They can’t run on retirement security because they are threatening it. And they can’t run on tax cuts because this signature GOP ‘achievement’ has lined the pockets of their wealthy donors but done absolutely nothing for the real wages of the average family.

That’s why Donald Trump, Republican congressional leadership and GOP candidates up and down the ballot and across the country have opted for an ugly midterm election strategy: smear immigrants as criminals and attack Democrats for defending them. It seems the GOP is desperate for a dirty debate over immigration, crime and out-of-touch liberals for fear that a clean debate over healthcare, education, retirement and wages would lead to electoral disaster.

….fellow Democrats, buckle up and buck up. Yes, this campaign season will be marked by a relentless GOP onslaught of ugly images, racist smears and hateful attacks. But instead of being afraid of their divide-and-distract strategy, call it out. Instead of talking like Republicans in hopes of defusing wedge issues, call for us to come together from diverse backgrounds to craft pragmatic solutions that serve our interests and reflect our ideals. Let us be the ones to unapologetically chart the path forward — with leaders that bring us together across racial, ethnic and religious difference as we work to make healthcare accessible, wages rise, education work, immigration legal, and retirement secure. Let us be the big tent party in which all of us — white, black, brown and more — are invited, included and enabled.

Below is a round up of just some of the race-baiting, anti-immigrant ads currently being run by the GOP:


A newly released ad from the Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, brought the Trump/Republican anti-immigrant political message to Nevada. This ad aims to bolster incumbent Senator Dean Heller and is like others produced by Republican candidates over the past year. It shows the GOP’s goal is to divide Americans by attacking immigrants and people of color in order to distract voters from their party’s horrible record on issues that impact Nevadans.

This is a particularly risky strategy in Nevada, which has a growing Latino population. Immigration has proved to be a winning issue in previous Senate races in 2010 and 2016.

As Viridiana Vidal, AV Nevada State Director said, “In our diverse state, this racist strategy is doomed to fail. Thanks in part to a backlash to Trump’s racism, support for immigrants and pro-immigrant policies is at record highs.”


In Missouri, One Nation has run ads that open with the Golden Gate Bridge and a statement that San Francisco is a “sanctuary city”, defined as “safe harbor for criminal illegals” — a statement that is as false as it is dehumanizing. A Hispanic man with face tattoos is shown adjacent to Senator Claire McCaskill with a claim that she defends “sanctuary cities” and “voted for amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants” (as footage of a nondescript person jumping a fence and breaking into a run displays).

An ad run by the Senate Leadership Fund is strikingly similar. It too admonishes McCaskill for defending “sanctuary cities” and falsely asserts that such policies protect criminals, before admonishing her for supporting “amnesty”.

North Dakota

Kevin Cramer, the Republican challenger to incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, has fully embraced the GOP’s divide and distract strategy. He ran an ad that begins with a man being arrested with “ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION” covering the entire screen. It goes on to show Hispanic men being arrested while Cramer makes false and misleading statements about “sanctuary cities.”

GOP allies supporting Cramer are also doubling down on the strategy. Vice President Pence announced he would cut an ad attacking Heitkamp. And the Senate Leadership Fund ran an ad using the same footage of a nondescript person jumping a fence and breaking out into a run while the ad chides Heitkamp for supporting “amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants.” The ad even includes an image of the Golden Gate Bridge in a section attacking “sanctuary cities.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee also has an ad attacking Heitkamp, targeting her for supporting “sanctuary cities” and concluding with a picture of Heitkamp against the phrase, “Liberals Fight Trump, Illegals Get a Free Pass”.

One Nation has two separate ads attacking immigrants and Heitkamp. One ad running on Facebook is almost an identical copy of the ad ran against McCaskill. In another, they assail Heitkamp for not supporting funding for Trump’s border wall and supporting “amnesty.” In the background of the ad, an ominous hooded figure walking alone on a street brandishes a knife. The ad ends with calling for Heitkamp to “stop dangerous sanctuary cities.”  

This week, the Trump-affiliated SuperPAC, America First Action launched an ad that hits on every anti-immigrant theme. According to news reports, the PAC dropped nearly a million dollars on the ad buy.

West Virginia

One Nation ran an ad in West Virginia admonishing Democrat Joe Manchin for not supporting funding for Trump’s border wall and supporting laws that would have extended a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. This ad shows brown-skinned men scaling walls and running through bushes while Manchin’s face appears adjacent to text reading “Voted for Immigration Bill, GIVING AMNESTY to MILLIONS of LAWBREAKERS.” The ad also features footage of Trump calling for a border wall, followed by a quote from Manchin saying, “I’m not voting for the wall.”


In February 2018, Republican Mike Braun released a hugely controversial ad that politicized the death of Uber driver and attempted to blame the actions of an individual on an entire community. Braun pulled the ad in March after strong criticism from the widow of the victim.

Last month, Braun’s allies at One Nation launched new ads, one of which begins with footage of ominous hooded figure walking alone on a street brandishing a knife. The ad then reprimands Donnelly for support for “amnesty for illegal immigrants, criminals, drunk drivers, domestic violence” — highlighting a mailer where Donnelly said the opposite. A separate ad again admonishes Donnelly over support for “amnesty,” next to footage of brown-skinned men climbing fences and running through bushes.      


One Nation has run at least two ads in Arizona, both attacking immigrants. One hits Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema for supporting “sanctuary cities”, which they falsely define as a “ban on local police working with federal officers to deport criminal illegal immigrants” and “creating safe havens for criminals.” The ad continues with an ominous hooded figure overlaid with text saying “Innocent Americans are Victimized.”

The other ad One Nation ran was in support of Republican candidate Martha McSally, which begins with the highly politicized death of Kate Steinle, and ends with an ominous hooded figure walking alone on a street brandishing a knife.


Over the last two months, Democrat Beto O’Rourke has steadily closed his gap in the polls against Republican Ted Cruz, making Texas’ senatorial contest a neck and neck race. These recent gains appear to have prompted Cruz to switch tactics and adopt the divide and distract strategy. Cruz’s campaign began running an ad that flashes news reports highlighting three examples of immigrant crime, in an attempt to demonize the whole community. “It seems that ‘Lyin’ Ted’ has now also become ‘Xenophobic Ted’,” said Mario Carrillo, Director of America’s Voice Texas. “His latest ad attacks immigrants and goes against the value of inclusion that Texans hold dear. Cruz is adopting the 2018 GOP campaign strategy by maligning immigrants,” concluded Carrillo.