It may be nearing the end of September, but today feels like Groundhog Day. U.S. Senator Dean Heller’s (R) right-wing allies have dropped a new series of ads, yet these ads have a whole lot of old material… Material so old that 2010 is asking for the return of its attack ads.
So let’s do the time warp again. After all, if we don’t remember the past, we can’t address the present or change our future.
Back in 2010, then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) was running for what would ultimately be his final term in the Senate. After a contentious Republican primary that featured soon-to-be perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian, an investment banker who relocated from New York City to run for Congress here in Nevada, the Nevada Legislature’s resident culture warrior, and the once respected Nevada Republican Party leader who decided to make “Chickens for Checkups” her signature health care policy, former Assembly Member Sharron Angle (R-Reno) emerged victorious. Like some of the other candidates, Angle made a number of public statements that clued the public to her “41-to-Angle” far-right record. Yet after a clumsy attempt to obfuscate that record, Republican operatives ultimately decided to lean into that far-right record by airing this ad that still haunts me to this very day.
Angle infamously contorted Reid’s record on immigration to make it seem like he supported “tax breaks for illegal aliens”, but ultimately it was about far more than just that. Angle portrayed Reid as “favoring illegals over you”, and essentially ran a very early test of what would become a central tenet of Donald Trump‘s 2016 campaign theme that married nativism and populism, a theme that Trump still campaigns on as President today.
At the time, many Republicans were confident and some Democrats were worried about the effectiveness of that ad. Both groups proved to be wrong, as Reid managed to pull off a fairly comfortable (50.3-44.5%, or just over 41,000 vote) victory over Angle in what was otherwise a spectacularly successful midterm election wave for Republicans. And yet, Angle’s “Sharrontology” of barely veiled xenophobia managed to live on in the Republican Party, setting the stage for what we’re witnessing inside the White House today.
From Sharrontology’s obtuse angle to Trumpism’s stunning blowback
Fast forward to 2017. Fresh off Trump’s election, other Republican candidates began to emulate Trump and his “winning, winning, winning” nativist platform. One such candidate was Virginia Gubernatorial hopeful Ed Gillespie (R), who only barely survived a far closer than expected primary win over neo-Confederate white nationalist Corey Stewart (R). In a brazen move to simultaneously win over Stewart’s far-right base and scare white suburban swing voters, Gillespie made Trump’s campaign theme his own by tying Democrats to the brutal MS-13 gang and railing against the supposed danger of “sanctuary cities” and rallying around the Confederate Flag in the wake of the neo-Nazi assault on Charlottesville.
Once again, many Republicans got giddy and some Democrats got worried over what appeared to be the trajectory of this race. However, Ralph Northam (D) emerged victorious last November as he defeated Gillespie by a larger than expected 8.9% margin. Not only did Gillespie fail to evoke the kind of turnout he needed from rural Southwestern Virginia communities that broke overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, but he also underperformed horrendously in the heavily populated Hampton Roads, Richmond, and D.C. suburban regions. And not only did these urban and suburban areas break decisively for Northam, but they also allowed Democrats to win all other statewide races and flip 15 Republican-held legislative seats last year.
Despite Republicans’ failures in Virginia, they continued to beat this nativist drum in special election after special election this year. Yet from Pennsylvania in March to Arizona in April and Ohio in August, Republicans continued to underperform Trump’s 2016 baseline, even to the point of losing that U.S. House seat in Western Pennsylvania in March. And with multiple polls showing that a solid majority of Americans are tiring of Trumpist anti-immigrant rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether continued beating of this nativist drum will help Republicans save their majorities in Congress this November.
Eight years later, Dean Heller is resurrecting Sharron Angle’s campaign strategy. What’s different this time.
Here in 2018, U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R), a Republican who voted for comprehensive immigration reform all of five years ago, has completely reinvented himself as a Trump loyalist in running for reelection this year. Last week, he proudly stood with Donald Trump on the stage at Las Vegas Convention Center. This week, his friends at the “dark money” outfit known as Senate Leadership Fund have dropped a collection of TV and online ads attacking Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Henderson) on… You guessed it: “sanctuary cities” and “criminal aliens”.
Between national Republican groups admitting that their messaging on Trump’s tax law hasn’t been working, Heller’s own campaign not wanting to talk about health care with a NPR reporter, and Republican Party insiders sounding the alarms over their Brett Kavanaugh #MeToo “hiccup”, we can see why Republicans want to change the subject. But of course, these new attack ads neglect to mention any facts.
First, there’s no real evidence pointing to “sanctuary cities” having “more crime”. Second, a San Francisco jury acquitted the immigrant who had been accused of murdering Kate Steinle in 2015 because prosecutors provided insufficient evidence of his guilt. Third, civil rights groups on the right and on the left have criticized “Kate’s Law” because past efforts to impose mandatory minimum sentences on a wide array of criminal offenders have generally resulted in a much larger prison population rather than any real improvement in public safety. So when we assess the actual facts behind the scary imagery, there’s no evidence to back Republicans’ claim that Rosen “put Washington politics before our safety” when she voted against this bill last year.
There is, however, plenty of evidence showing that Heller and most of the rest of the Republican Party have cast their lot with Trump and Trumpism, truth be damned. As Nevada Current’s Hugh Jackson has aptly pointed out, Republicans are betting big on very small turnout this fall, and more so on that very small turnout being dominated by Trump’s (and by extension, Heller’s) base. But if turnout looks less like the “Great Red Tide” of 2014 and more like Virginia in 2017 (or even, for that matter, Nevada in 2010), Republicans may ultimately regret repeating Sharron Angle’s ugliest mistake.