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Ignoring Defeats from 2017 through 2020, Republicans Prepare to Run on Immigration in 2022

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Desperate for a hot-button dog-whistle, Republicans reach for a wedge issue that has lost its edge

Republicans are busy signaling their intention to run hard on nativism during the 2022 midterms. For example:

  • Stephen Miller told The Washington Post last week that Republicans should make the 2022 midterms all about immigration. Referring to the 2010 midterm cycle, he said,  “From a purely political standpoint, this is a recipe for Democrats to have an historic drubbing in the midterms if we can make it even as big an issue or bigger than Obamacare.”
  • In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Karl Rove counseled President Trump to use his CPAC speech to “emphasize his agenda and contrast it with Mr. Biden’s policies starting with the new administration’s immigration proposal.”

This should sound familiar.

  • Steve Bannon predicted in the days before the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election that Ed Gillespie would beat Democrat Ralph Northam. Gillespie’s reliance on racist ads and embrace of anti-immigrant politics pleased Bannon. He told the Washington Post “Corey Stewart [Gillespie’s nativist primary opponent] is the reason Gillespie is going to win,” and told the New York Times, “He’s closed an enthusiasm gap by rallying around the Trump agenda … And I think the big lesson for Tuesday is that, in Gillespie’s case, Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward. If that’s the case, Democrats better be very, very worried.” 

Gillespie lost by nine percentage points.

  • In May 2018, Stephen 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 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 August 2020, Stephen 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.

Biden won 306 electoral college votes and won the popular vote by more than 7 million votes. Democrats took the Senate and kept the House. The American public broke ever-more sharply in a pro-immigrant direction.

  • The leading anti-immigrant firebrands all lost in the 2018 and 2020 elections
  • Kris Kobach, a leading architect of the nativist movement in America, ran for governor of ruby red Kansas in 2018 and lost by nearly 5 percentage points. 
  • Rep. Lou Barletta, a former Mayor of Hazleton who rose to prominence as a fierce nativist, ran for US Senate in Pennsylvania in 2018 with the support of Trump and was crushed by 14 percentage points; 
  • Corey Stewart, a xenophobe from Virginia, ran for the Senate in 2018 and lost by 15 percentage points. 
  • Kobach (again), Jeff Sessions, and Steve King – all damaged, all hardliners – all lost in 2020 primaries. 

The leader of a far-right anti-immigrant group, William Gheen of ALIPAC, summed it up this way: “In the era of Trump…who would have ever guessed after four years of Trump our top voices against illegal immigration would be gone.”

Read America’s Voice’s detailed report: GOP Ad Wars in 2020: Divisive, Anti-Immigrant, and Racist

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

Nativism works for some voters, but backfires for most. With Trump demonizing, detaining and deporting immigrants and refugees, including ripping kids from their parents, he forced Americans to choose whether we want to be a strong, welcoming nation or a weak, fearful nation. The majority have come down against those who advocate cruel and inhumane policies and in favor of immigrants and refugees.

The multiracial majority that put Biden in the White House and Democratic majorities in the Senate and House soundly rejected Trump’s vicious attacks on a pillar of our identity, and strongly support immigration solutions rooted in our values. 

Will racism and xenophobia deliver victory for Republicans in 2022? Let’s check the record. Well, it failed and backfired in races from 2017 through 2020. Republicans may be desperately casting about for a racist dog-whistle hot button issue, but Mr. Potato Head and cancel culture may be more promising than reprising a wedge issue that has lost its edge.