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Trump’s 2020 Campaign Turns to Racism and Xenophobia, a Strategy that Backfired 2017 Through 2019

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Key Points

  • As a pandemic ravages America, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is turning to a go-to strategy: racism and xenophobia.
  • Over the past four years, messages that demonize immigrants, foreigners and so-called “open borders” opponents have been a mainstay of GOP campaign strategy and attack ads — from Trump to Republican candidates to party committees and superPACs. 
  • At America’s Voice, we have been closely tracking this strategy. The evidence to-date is overwhelming: xenophobia mobilizes Trump and GOP opponents far more than it mobilizes Trump and GOP voters. 

Below are some of the key races where the GOP’s reliance on racism and xenophobia backfired.

2017: The GOP’s Failing Strategy to Win Elections By Attacking Immigrants

  • The 2017 Virginia’s governor’s race: This race was an early indication that the GOP’s failed strategy of demonizing “the other.” It was the first statewide election following the election of Trump, and GOP nominee Ed Gillespie was pulled to the right during a contested primary against long-time xenophobe Corey Stewart. In the general election, Gillespie doubled down on anti-immigrant attacks rather than move to the center, closing with a torrent of ads featuring photos of Salvadoran gang members — from a prison in El Salvador. With pundits predicting that Gillespie’s race-based closing would power him to victory, he lost to Democrat Ralph Northam by 9 points. Republicans employed the same strategy in Virginia House of Delegates races. The GOP lost by a huge margin, with Democrats picking up a record 15 seats. 
  • The 2017 New Jersey governor’s race: The Republican nominee for Governor, Kim Guadagno, made “sanctuary cities” the key message in the final days of her campaign. She ran a campaign ad that claimed her opponent, Democrat Phil Murphy, wanted to protect murderers from deportation — an ad that the Star-Ledger editorial board called “this campaign’s Willie Horton ad.” Democrat Phil Murphy won comfortably by 14 points.

2018: How Did Immigrants and Immigration Fare in 2018 Elections?

  • Democrat Conor Lamb: In a closely-watched special election for the PA-18 House seat,  GOP candidate Rick Saccone and the GOP again relied on anti-immigrant messaging. The Democrat Conor Lamb won and Saccone lost in a district President Trump won by 20 percentage points.
  • Midterm House races: In the fall of 2018, Republican candidates, party committees, and superPACS made racism and xenophobia the heart of their message. Trump nationalized the race with his relentless and ugly focus on caravans, criminals and terrorists. His political shop cut an ad that was considered so incendiary Fox News refused to run it. In fact, his rhetoric did seem to inspire two domestic terrorists, one who sent pipe bombs to leading Democrats, and one who killed Jewish faithful at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Most Republican candidates in tough races used the same race-baiting, fearmongering, divide-and-distract strategy. Often, they used the same exact ads and imagery. Our midterm post-election report can be found here
  • Anti-immigrant hardliners lose key Senate races: Two Republican Senate candidates,Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania, and Corey Stewart in Virginia, have made immigrant-bashing  the centerpieces of their political careers. They repeatedly attacked immigrants in their 2018 campaigns. Both lost badly.
  • Anti-immigrant hardliners lose key Governor races: Kris Kobach in Kansas, one of the leading anti-immigrant voices on the right, leaned on xenophobia in his campaign in reliably red Kansas. He lost. He was not the only one. Among other big losers who used the ugly anti-immigrant strategy were Adam Laxalt (NV), Bill Schuette (MI), Jeff Johnson (MN), and Scott Wagner (PA).
  • Anti-immigrant hardliners lose House races: In 2018 House races, a long list of anti-immigrant Republicans aired racist and xenophobic ads. Some of those who did so and went down to defeat: Barbara Comstock (VA-10); Dave Brat (VA-07);  Kevin Yoder (KS-03); Pete Sessions (TX-32); Lea Marquez Peterson (AZ-02); Christopher Peters (IA-03); Jason Lewis (MN-02); Wendy Rogers (AZ-01); Rudy Peters (CA-15); Lena Epstein (MI-11); Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48); Danny Tarkanian (NV-03); Katie Arrington (SC-01); and John Culberson (TX-07). In House races nationwide, Democrats beat Republicans in the popular vote by 8.6%, the largest midterm margin ever.

2019: GOP’s Predictable Xenophobia Playbook Again Fails in Louisiana Gubernatorial Run-off Election

  • Kentucky gubernatorial race: incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin, along with superPACs aligned with his campaign, made racism the centerpiece of their electoral strategy. He lost to Democrat Andy Beshear in an upset.
  • Louisiana gubernatorial race: Republican Eddie Rispone’s campaign featured ugly anti-immigrant attack ads. He welcomed President Trump to the state three times in the campaign’s final month, with Trump echoing his “open borders” attacks on Democrat Jon Bel Edwards. Republican Rispone lost in an upset.
  • Virginia’s state legislative races: Several Republican candidates relied on anti-immigrant messaging, ignoring the lessons of the 2017 Virginia races. Republicans lost, and Democrats took control of both the House of Delegates and the State Senate for the first time in a generation.

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

As Donald Trump and Republican candidates across the nation turn, once again, to a strategy anchored in racism and xenophobia, the record in recent years is clear: it may boost turnout among core supporters, but it boosts the backlash vote even more.  

A majority of voters strongly oppose the Trump and Republican strategy of using divisiveness and xenophobia in the service of plutocracy. Many will crawl over broken glass to vote against the GOP. 

That doesn’t mean Trump and the GOP will shelve this strategy. In fact, it may well be this is the only play left in their playbook.