After President Donald Trump won in 2016 on a platform of nativism, xenophobia, racism, and a false promise that Mexico would fund a giant wall along the U.S.’s southern border, he and his party apparently believed that appeals to bigotry and division were the way to win elections. But while the White House, GOP party committees, allied outside groups, and midterm candidates employed an array of dog-whistle and plainly racist attacks against Democratic candidates, it did not have the desired results in last week’s 2018 midterms.
There were certainly instances in which racist candidates and divisive tactics were successful. Former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) appears to have eked out a very narrow win against a black Democrat whom he compared to a monkey. Indicted Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) won after smearing his Christian opponent, a Latino-Arab American, of secretly being a “radical Muslim” and a “security risk.” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) was victorious in a close race against an opponent he tied to a convicted cop-killer with race-baiting ads. Though it was much closer than his previous wins, white supremacist Rep. Steve King (R-IA) held onto his House seat.
But on a larger scale, the attacks mostly flopped.
Xenophobic attacks against Tom O’Halleran (AZ-1)
Republican challenger Wendy Rogers challenged first-term Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) over his opposition to Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. Her ad called Honduran refugees “invaders” and warned that if O’Halleran and Democrats won, the borders would be “opened” and “our America” would be “gone forever.” Voters didn’t buy it, and they re-elected him easily.
Anti-Asian attacks against Andy Kim (NJ-3)
Rep. Tom MacArthur (R) lost to Democrat Andy Kim, a national security expert whose parents immigrated from South Korea. The New Jersey GOP sent a racist mailer to voters in the district using images of a fish market juxtaposed next to Kim’s name written in a font similar to Chinese take-out restaurants, and a prominent GOP super PAC ad accused Kim of being “not one of us.” In a debate, MacArthur refused to denounce the attacks and suggested Kim was falsely crying racism to get sympathy.
In a post-election interview, the apparent Congressman-elect Kim observed that the attacks might actually have backfired and helped him, particularly after the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting.
Xenophobic attacks against Max Rose (NY-11)
Rep. Dan Donovan (R-NY) was not expected to lose re-election. But that did not stop him from falsely accusing his Democratic opponent, Afghanistan war veteran Max Rose, of wanting to let violent gangs of immigrants wreak havoc. One Donovan ad accused Rose of supporting “sanctuary cities for gangs like MS-13,” while another inaccurately warned he would abolish ICE.
Rose not only won an upset; he won by 6 points.
Racist anti-rapper attacks on Antonio Delgado (NY-19)
Rep. John Faso (R-NY) lost re-election to Antonio Delgado, a 41-year-old lawyer who is black. A prominent GOP super PAC ran multiple ads attacking Delgado for a rap album he made more than a decade ago, dismissing him as a “big-city rapper.” Rather than defend his opponent from the race-baiting ads, Faso joined in, calling Delgado’s lyrics “offensive” (they were pro-social justice) and “inconsistent with the views of the people of the 19th district and America.” The majority of voters in the district disagreed.
Xenophobic attacks against Susan Wild (PA-7)
Republican Marty Nothstein, a Lehigh County Commissioner and former Olympic cyclist, ran wildly extremist ads accusing his Democratic opponent of being okay with immigrants raping children. Nothstein’s ad argued that because former Allentown City Solicitor Susan Wild supported sanctuary cities, that meant she was okay with violent crimes like a “five- year-old girl raped by ‘an illegal’ given sanctuary in Philadelphia.” Nothstein lost a special election to fill the seat in the final weeks of former Rep. Charlie Dent’s (R-PA) 2016 term and simultaneously was defeated for a full term by about 10 points.
Xenophobic attacks against Abigail Spanberger (VA-7)
Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) ran ads warning that a caravan of migrant refugees traveling from Honduras posed a great threat and that his opponent, Democratic Abigail Spanberger had not commented on it. The same spot falsely claimed that she supports “open borders” and “defended the violent gang MS-13.” He soon became the first GOP nominee to lose the district in 50 years.
Islamophobic attacks against Kyrsten Sinema (AZ Senate)
Despite running in 2012 on a promise to eschew name-calling, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) ran a vicious campaign against fellow Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) for the Senate seat Jeff Flake left open. In addition to slamming her opponent for protesting war “in a pink tutu,” McSally accused her in a debate of outright “treason” based on an offhand comment she made in 2003 acknowledging that people are free to choose to join the Taliban overseas. McSally’s career has been rife with anti-Muslim statements and actions. On Monday, she conceded, and Sinema will become the state’s first Democratic senator in 25 years.
Xenophobic and neo-Confederate attacks on Tim Kaine (VA Senate)
Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart was the Republican nominee to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) — even after losing his neo-Confederate-themed gubernatorial campaign in 2017. This time around, he doubled down on fringe attacks: Brat called a Muslim-American candidate in Michigan an “ISIS commie,” falsely blamed the left for white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, and ran ads falsely warning that Tim Kaine favors “open borders” and the abolition of ICE, while promising to work with Trump to “stop the illegal alien invasion.” Accusing Kaine of being part of the Antifa movement, Stewart warned “vote red or America will be dead.” Virginia shrugged that off, giving Kaine a hefty 15-point win.
Anti-LGBTQ attacks against Jared Polis (CO Governor)
Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), who is openly gay, became the nation’s first out LGBTQ man elected governor. He did so despite attack ads by Focus on the Family’s Family Policy Alliance (FOF) attacking him for supporting non-discrimination laws. The group attempted to tie him to a state law that may force Jack Phillips, an anti-LGBTQ baker in the state, to provide public accommodations to all people.
Xenophobic attacks on Laura Kelly (KS Governor)
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) has staked his career on voter suppression and xenophobia. After defeating Gov. Jeff Colyer in the Republican primary, he doubled down on anti-immigrant fear mongering and falsely attacked his Democratic opponent Laura Kelly as an “open-borders extremist.” The national party joined in, saying Kelly supported “taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal immigrants.” The attacks turned off several prominent Kansas Republicans, who crossed party lines to endorse Kelly. Despite the state’s heavily red tilt, she won by more than 4 points.
Anti-Semitic ads around the country
Despite indications that Trump-backed conspiracy theories helped spur both the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting and the pipe bomb assassination attempts on presidential critics, Republican candidates around the country used an array of anti-Semitic attacks to suggest House Democrats were in the pocket of Jewish donors like George Soros. Ed Charamut, a Republican Connecticut legislative candidate, sent out a mailer depicting his Jewish Democratic opponent as a crazed person clutching wads of money. The National Republican Congressional Committee came under fire for similar caricatures and anti-Soros attacks. Charamut lost that race, the national Republicans lost their House majority, and anti-Semitism mostly proved to be a political loser.
Other Republican candidates who made bigoted and xenophobic statements also may have paid a price. Former California Congressman Frank Riggs (R) lost his race for Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction after using an offensive term to describe Asian-Americans — ironically, he was trying to make the claim that police racism does not exist. Former television anchor Maria Elvira Salazar (R) lost her race for an open House seat in Florida after she called for a review of birthright citizenship.
Perhaps most telling, despite the round-the-clock obsession by the Trump administration, its favored candidates, and Fox News with the southern border, voters who would be most immediately affected by “The Wall” largely voted against it as a concept. Democrats swept nearly all of the House districts along the southern border, and border states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas all saw major swings away from the GOP. Perhaps in 2020, GOP candidates might think twice before trying to emulate Trump.
This story has been updated to include that Nothstein both races that and MacArthur conceded defeat.