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

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

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Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District was the latest reminder that the Republican Party is planning to run hard on immigration and so-called “sanctuary cities” during the 2018 cycle. The results of Tuesday’s special election in PA-18, meanwhile, were the latest evidence that the GOP’s anti-immigrant attacks aren’t working — and in some cases, may be backfiring.

Despite the failure of the anti-immigrant attacks to gain traction, Republicans are likely to follow the cues of the Trump White House and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and continue to run hard on immigration attacks.

In red, purple, and blue states alike, Republicans have made attacks on sanctuary cities a key component of their political strategy: in the PA-18 congressional special election; the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey; and races as varied as the Alabama Senate special election, county executive races in New York, and the special election for Florida’s House District 72. Importantly, in all of these races, the anti-immigrant strategy failed.

Below is an overview of the failure of the GOP anti-immigrant attacks in races thus far and the beginnings of lessons learned for pro-immigrant candidates and their allies:

  • As candidates such as Conor Lamb and even Doug Jones show, you don’t have to take the bait and let immigration attacks distract you from your core messages, even in deep-red districts and states. Both adopted common-sense pro-immigrant positions such as opposition to the border wall, support for Dreamers and recognition that the best option for dealing with millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. is to give them a chance to come forward and apply for legal status. Their wins showed that Democratic candidates need not overreact to these attacks and throw immigrants under the bus to be competitive in red states and districts.
  • Meanwhile, as statewide gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey show, the Republican attacks on immigrants may backfire, in part by mobilizing voters of color and in part by branding the GOP candidate as intolerant and driving away many white voters in the process. This dynamic applied in both Virginia and New Jersey, despite the different ways the two Democratic candidates handled anti-sanctuary cities attacks and the larger topic of immigration.

Instead of the simplistic and stale debate in Democratic circles about “identity politics” vs. “reaching white voters,” we need to recognize that bottom-up mobilization efforts that turn out base voters, combined with persuasion strategies that hit a broader universe of voters, is the key. It’s not ‘either/or,’ it’s ‘both/and.’”

And instead of running scared, Democrats should stand up for values, propose workable solutions, and denounce divisiveness. That is the best way to mobilize the base and win over centrists and continue the Republican losing streak on anti-immigrant attacks.


Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District Special Election, March 2018

Democrat Conor Lamb’s narrow victory in the PA-18 special election over GOP candidate Rick Saccone, in a district President Trump won by 20 percentage points, captures the tough environment for Republicans this cycle and the GOP’s attempted reliance on immigration in the face of these headwinds. Of note, based on the Cook Report Partisan Voter Index, there are 114 Republican-held House seats more competitive than PA-18.

In the final weeks of the race, as Politico described, “Republicans backed away from their signature tax-cut law … Instead, GOP groups that once proudly declared the tax law would be the central fight of the midterms are now airing ads on so-called sanctuary cities and attacking Democrat Conor Lamb’s record as a prosecutor.” The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with close ties to Paul Ryan and House Republican leadership, released an anti-immigrant attack ad in late February that claimed that Conor Lamb wanted to work with Nancy Pelosi to grant “amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants … Lamb worked in the Obama administration that encouraged sanctuary cities, which put illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the street …Now Conor Lamb wants to help Nancy Pelosi give amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.” While we are awaiting final ad spending details, we know that CLF spending on the ad was well into the six figures and was the core messaging focus in homestretch of campaign.

Republican candidate Rick Saccone also tried to run on immigration in the homestretch, saying of blue collar union voters in the district, “They know, while their leadership supports candidates that drive jobs out of Pennsylvania and they’re for sanctuary cities and illegal aliens and open borders, I am against all of that,” and, also noting, “I’ve had union workers come up to me and complain about sanctuary cities and open borders and how illegal workers are displacing them and how they were voting for me because I was for jobs.” And in a weekend speech ahead of the election, President Trump linked Democrats to sanctuary cities and crime and said that electing Lamb would lead to more immigration.

Democratic candidate Conor Lamb did not take the bait and did not engage directly on sanctuary attacks, remaining focused on key economic, healthcare, and kitchen table concerns (see his campaign website for snapshot of his core messaging). Yet Lamb did not adopt hardline immigration positions in the face of the attack. Instead, he maintained support for legal status for undocumented immigrants and protections for Dreamers, though neither was a focus of his messaging. Lamb assessed immigration as follows, per Politico:

There are only four real options on immigration, Lamb explains. One, try to kick every undocumented immigrant out. Two, legalize the Dreamers—undocumented immigrants brought here as children—but try to kick out all the other migrants here illegally. Three, “the Dreamers obviously should stay,” and “the other 11½ million people, who knows how they got here, but they’re here, they’re in the shadows, that’s not really helping anybody, [so] let’s find a way to pull them out [of the shadows.]” And then there’s four: no change, continue the current policies. “I really believe that if you present those four options to people, 90 percent choose option three,” he says, adding that he also supports increased border security, but at ports of entry, not a wall.

In addition, Lamb was artful in pivoting. During the second debate with Saccone he responded to a question about Trump’s proposed border wall and an attempt to link immigrants and the opioid crisis by saying, “the No. 1 entry point for fentanyl is J.F.K. Airport.”

Virginia Governor Race, November 2017

Facing Democratic candidate Ralph Northam in the gubernatorial race, former pro-immigrant Republican Ed Gillespie resorted to an ugly anti-immigrant and anti-Latino strategy. The strategy not only failed, it backfired.

In the GOP primary, Gillespie narrowly defeated Prince William County Supervisor and notorious anti-immigrant crusader, Corey Stewart. In a race that “wasn’t supposed to be close,” Stewart ran an outspoken and nasty anti-immigrant, pro-confederacy campaign. During the primary, Stewart pulled Gillespie further to the right on key issues, including opposition to the removal of Confederate statues and immigration. During the general election, Gillespie went all in, adopting Stewart’s racist, anti-immigrant tactics. He resorted to an ugly, race-based, fear-mongering campaign that demonized immigrants. In particular, his campaign made it a priority to hype the threat of the international Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) as the defining stereotype of all Latino immigrants. At the center of Gillespie’s attacks were claims that Northam was weak on MS-13 because he once voted against banning so-called “sanctuary cities,” despite the fact there currently are no sanctuary cities in Virginia.

Gillespie released four ads that, as Vox described, “dwell at length on the evils of MS-13 (which are quite real) and then say [Democrat Ralph] Northam’s name a bunch, thus attempting to create a link between a brutal criminal organization and an Army doctor turned pediatric neurosurgeon.”

Gillespie ended up losing by a larger than expected 9 percentage points and Northam pollster Geoff Garin told Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, that Gillespie’s racialized immigration attacks backfired:

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.

There was also a very negative reaction among people of color. During the race, America’s Voice, Next Gen America, and CASA in Action conducted two polls with Latino Decisions — in early October and on Election Eve. Both included large samples of African American, Asian American, Latino, and White voters. In particular, the Election Eve poll of 1,600 Virginia voters demonstrated that Gillespie’s over-reliance on anti-immigrant race-baiting failed. Voters across all demographics were very aware the campaign had become heavily racialized and this moved them away from Gillespie and towards Northam.

  • Latinos and Asian Americans strongly rejected the MS-13 ads as anti-immigrant with overwhelming majorities of each group saying the ads made them less enthusiastic about Gillespie. There was a 19-point increase in the number of Latinos who thought Gillespie was anti-immigrant (from 22 to 41) and a 16-point increase in the number of (Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) voters (from 16 to 32). And among African-American voters, the single biggest key to Northam’s victory, the net effect of Gillespie’s ads on these voters’ enthusiasm for his candidacy was -73.
  • But even among white voters in Virginia, a majority were less enthusiastic about Gillespie because of the ads, and the polls found an overall net effect of -23 on enthusiasm for Gillespie among whites after the ads, while white voters increased their view that Gillespie was anti-immigrant over the final three weeks (from 17 to 35)%.

Of note, Ralph Northam ran on an inclusive message in Virginia, supporting such pro-immigrant policies as in-state tuition for Dreamers and driver’s licenses for all immigrants. But his campaign wasn’t perfect. He was slow to denounce Gillespie’s racist ads and stumbled in the home-stretch by committing to signing an anti-sanctuary bill if it came to his desk. However, the community support for amazing down ticket House of Delegate candidates and resistance to the divisive and anti-immigrant political attacks of Gillespie were strong enough to lift Northam to victory going away.

New Jersey Governor Race, November 2017

In New Jersey, the Republican nominee for Governor, Kim Guadagno, made “sanctuary cities” the key message of her campaign in the final days. She ran a campaign ad that claimed her opponent, that Democrat Phil Murphy, wanted to protect murderers from deportation — an ad that the Star-Ledger editorial board called “this campaign’s Willie Horton ad.” As in Virginia, the ads did not work and Murphy won comfortably by 14 points.

Of note, Murphy assertively ran as a pro-immigrant candidate — embracing protections and in-state tuition for Dreamers, supporting state ID and driver’s licenses for undocumented residents, and opposing “any efforts to use state and local police to assist in mass deportations.”

Alabama’s Senate Special Election, December 2017

While many other issues and controversies were the dominant focus of the December 2017 Alabama Senate special election between Democrat Doug Jones and Republican Roy Moore, Moore’s campaign and right wing outlets attempted to inject immigration ugliness into the race in the homestretch of the campaign by focusing on sanctuary cities and the Kate Steinle verdict. The strategy did not gain traction.

For his part, Doug Jones did not engage on the sanctuary-focused attacks, instead adhering to his plan that he stated in the summer: “We’re going to be talking about kitchen table issues that affect everyday Alabamians … I’ll let someone else talk about sanctuary cities in California.” Meanwhile, while Jones did not focus on immigration, he nonetheless opposed a border wall, saying, “I think it’s too expensive … I don’t think we need to be spending $20 billion dollars … I want to put it on healthcare, I want to get tax cuts for the middle class.” He was openly supportive of DACA and the Dream Act.

Long Island County Executive and Florida State Legislative Races

Shortly before election day, the New York Times reported on some of the ads being run in local races, noting “In Nassau County [Long Island], a mailer paid for by state Republicans said the Democratic candidate for county executive, Laura Curran, would “roll out the welcome mat” for the violent gang MS-13.” Curran won.

And in the special election for Florida’s House District 72, a reliably Republican district, attack ads against the Democrat, Margaret Good, featured language similar to that used in the Gillespie campaign. Good defeated James Buchanan, by 52-45 percent margin.


  • The Republican attacks on immigration and sanctuary policies are not working, and in some cases, are backfiring. Still, Republicans are expected to run on xenophobia this fall, in part because they have so little else to run on.
  • Red state and district Democrats need not take the bait, run for the hills or adopt hardline positions in the face of these attacks. As Conor Lamb and Doug Jones show, candidates can win by remaining disciplined on core messaging priorities and maintaining support for common sense, pro-immigrant policies when asked.
  • Blue and purple state Democrats can and should lean in on immigration, in recognition that Republican attacks motivate key base voters and alienate swing voters.

As we saw in Pennsylvania this week and in Virginia last year, a bottom-up mobilization efforts that turn out base voters, combined with persuasion strategies targeting a broader universe of voters, is key to winning—even in tough “Trump” districts. In Virginia, CASA and other pro-immigrant groups responded to anti-immigrant attacks by marginalizing Gillespie and mobilizing their new American base. The combined efforts included a robust field and earned media campaign, including door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, text messages, radio and television advertisement, mailer program, digital and earned media, and mobilization events.