With control of Congress hanging in the balance, and fears of a blue wave giving Democrats an edge in hard-fought races from the U.S. Senate to local offices, Republicans appear to have settled on a theme to turn out GOP voters in the closing days of the 2018 elections: bashing immigrants.
President Trump has set the tone, stoking Republican outrage over the alleged "invasion" of Central American refugees coming to the U.S. border, questioning the legitimacy of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of "birthright citizenship," and most recently releasing a widely criticized ad accusing Democrats of helping Latino criminals invade the country.
Vilifying immigrants isn't just a one-note mantra emanating from the White House: Surveys of Republican TV ads and political messages in the 2018 elections make it clear that whipping up fear of immigrants has emerged as the key closing argument of GOP candidates this election season, from the federal to the local level.
In mid-October, a CNN analysis of TV ad buys in House, Senate and governor races in 2018 found that more than $124 million had been spent on immigration-related ads — more than a five-fold increase over the $23 million spent in the last midterms in 2014. Most have come from Republican candidates and committees, aimed at whipping up fear of a supposed invasion of criminal immigrants into the U.S.
"The intensity that we're seeing this year is unprecedented," Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-immigration group National Immigration Forum, told CNN. "The Republican Party, led by Trump, is mobilizing their base with an immigration enforcement and deportation message."
That was echoed by Travis N. Ridout, co-director of the nonpartisan Wesleyan Media Project which tracks political ad spending:
[Republican candidates are] falling in line with the president and it seems they're trying to scare people about immigrants coming to this country. This is an election where Republicans are trying to get the base out, and one way to get the base out is scaring them about Democrats or scaring them about immigrants flooding in.
In the last stage of the 2018 campaign, Republicans have ratcheted up the anti-immigrant messages in key races across the South and country.
An 'illegal alien mob'
In Tennessee, U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) was one of the first candidates to seize on the refugee caravan, describing the group of sanctuary-seekers who are 1,000 miles from the U.S. border as an "illegal alien mob."
Though Blackburn is leading in the polls, her campaign and allied political groups have stepped up the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the election's home stretch. An Oct. 30 editorial penned by Blackburn warns of "an invading force approaching our southern border" that "includes gang members, individuals with criminal histories, and people from the Middle East." Attack ads run by Blackburn's campaign and the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, warn of a "caravan of 7,000 illegal immigrants" full of "gang members and criminals."
Even Tennessee's retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker appeared to have enough of the anti-caravan rhetoric, telling reporters this week, "Let's face it. We all know what's happening. It's all about revving up the base, using fear to stimulate people to come out at the polls."
In the U.S. Senate race in Texas, Trump himself injected anti-immigrant messaging in his support for incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R), locked in a high-profile battle with Democrat Rep. Beto O'Rourke. "That is an assault on our country, and in that caravan you have some very bad people, and we can't let that happen to our country," Trump said in a pro-Cruz rally in Houston this week, adding — without proof — that Democrats had helped start the caravan. "I think the Democrats had something to do with it," he said. Cruz also recently came out in support of Trump's effort to end birthright citizenship.
In Georgia, Republican candidate for governor Brian Kemp has also hewed to the Trump anti-immigrant line in his close race with Democrat Stacey Abrams. In the Republican primaries, Kemp infamously ran an ad in which he boasted he had a big truck — "just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take 'em home myself." Another ad began by listing three murder victims, "all killed by illegal immigrants."
The Trump-like messaging has continued into the general election. In mid-October, Kemp seized on a speech where Abrams said "this blue wave is comprised of those who are documented and undocumented" to falsely claim in an ad that "Abrams will let illegal immigrants vote, receive welfare benefits, and turn Georgia into a sanctuary state."
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In North Carolina, the anti-immigrant rhetoric is reaching into state races as well. For example, state Sen. Trudy Wade (R) of Greensboro is running an online ad that alleges to show "a mob of illegals marching to our border," with the words "Mexicans, Haitians, Salvadorans" flashing across the screen. The ad intones, "Only you can stop the mob."
Another Republican state Senate candidate, Rick Gunn, is running ads that falsely accuse his Democratic opponent, J.D. Wooten, of being a "Liberal Lawyer for Illegals," over images of the caravan and criminals. Wooten is an intellectual property attorney. "I do nothing in immigration law, never have," he told The Charlotte Observer.
According to a database of anti-immigrant TV and online ads maintained by America's Voice, a pro-immigration reform group, similarly incendiary ads from Republicans and conservative groups have recently run in other races in Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
The hysterical messages in the anti-immigrant ads have little basis in fact. The original migrant caravan has shrunk down to some 4,000 people, and is expected to lose many more in traveling the several hundred miles that remain before it reaches the U.S. border. Research is conclusive that undocumented immigrants are less likely to be violent criminals than native U.S. citizens.
And while the attack ads focus on angry men, most of the Central Americans moving northward are women and children, and usually with good reasons for seeking asylum. As Buzzfeed News reports, data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show that 93 percent of the 411 people who sought asylum during the last caravan passed the "credible fear" test, meaning that U.S. officials found they had a "well-founded fear that they will be tortured or persecuted in their home country because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."
Short-term gain, long-term loss?
While the Republican Party's strident anti-immigrant messages might succeed in giving its candidates a turnout boost in key races in 2018, there's growing evidence that immigrant-bashing could be weakening the party in the long term.
As political scientist Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan recently observed, "Public opinion data suggest that Trump has failed to convince the public on immigration and has even helped to turn the public against his positions — an effect that may grow stronger as his anti-immigration campaign intensifies."
Since Trump took office, the portion of Americans who say immigration is good for the country has reached record highs. About 60 percent of adults oppose the president's proposed border wall, including one out of five Republicans. A poll in mid-October found that 50 percent of voters say they trust Democrats over Republicans in handling immigration, up from 37 percent in 2015.
The GOP's anti-immigrant stance is also motivating the party's opponents. Latinos, a fast-growing part of the electorate in Southern states and nationally, now say protecting immigrant rights is their top issue, putting them at odds with Republican immigration hardliners.
The 2017 elections in Virginia could be a cautionary tale for Republicans. GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie made dire warnings about immigrants and the Central American MS-13 gang a centerpiece of his campaign, but an election eve survey by Latino Decisions found that the anti-immigrant ads were a factor in lowering support for Gillespie among a broad swatch of voters including African Americans, Asians and Latinos, and even 53 percent of whites.
In fact, the negative impact of the governor's MS-13 ads were felt by Republicans all down the ballot in Virginia: Latino Decisions found that "those who were aware of Mr. Gillespie's MS-13 ads were significantly more likely to vote for Democratic candidates for Virginia's House of Delegates, where Democrats gained a remarkable 14 seats last year.
Matt Barreto believes the lessons of Virginia and other states point to how Democrats could benefit from the GOP's anti-immigrant focus. As he wrote earlier in 2018:
[N]ot only is it morally just for Democrats to position themselves as the party that stands against hatred and bigotry and in favor of inclusiveness and opportunity, but it is also a strategically sound position for winning votes. Simultaneously, it sends a clear, welcoming message to Latino, African-American and Asian-American voters, while also winning over enough of the white voters who also oppose immigrant bashing.