Following Trump’s Lead, GOP Leans Hard Into Culture Wars In Closing Ads

Screen shot of an NRCC ad in Minnesota's first district.
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President Trump has promised the 2018 midterms “will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense.” With two weeks until Election Day, Republican candidates and groups in key races are increasingly putting their money where Trump’s mouth is.

Trump has done what he does best in recent days, further ramping up the culture wars on the campaign trail. He’s tied Democrats in key races to illegal immigration and mob chaos while raising evidence-free fears of “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” sneaking across the border amidst refugee mobs. He’s even included the hashtag #jobsnotmobs in some recent tweets.

As Trump fuels his culture war in an effort to rouse the GOP base, Republicans in the key races across the country that will determine control of Congress have launched ads ominously warning of mob rule, chaos and violence if Democrats retake Congress, while occasionally using rhetoric Democrats view as racist dog-whistles.

“Prima donna athletes protesting our anthem. Left-wing mobs paid to riot in the streets. Billionaire George Soros bankrolls the resistance — and Dan Feehan,” a recent National Republican Congressional Committee ad intones. The spot accuses the Democratic candidate in an open Minnesota House seat of being beholden to Soros because he worked for a bipartisan national security think tank headed by a former top staffer of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), which received funding from Soros.

That ad has drawn charges of anti-Semitism because of its attacks on Soros, a billionaire liberal donor and Holocaust survivor who has been used as a bogeyman for years both by non-anti-Semitic mainstream Republicans and by those on the fringe who believe in a global Jewish conspiracy theory.

The hot-button strategy has been even more pronounced in red-state Senate races, which isn’t surprising given the strong conservative lean of votes in many of the top states on the Senate map.

The pattern of ads shows Republicans’ intense interest in further polarizing the electorate, terrifying Republican base voters, and turning the 2018 midterms into a referendum on the culture war. That’s a strategy that Republicans used to great effect in the 2014 midterms, pairing scare-mongering rhetoric about illegal immigration, Ebola and ISIS, and one that Trump mastered in 2016 with his conspiracy-fueled and nativist campaign.

Republicans believe it could yield dividends in the fight for the Senate as well as in specific House races in deeper red territory, though the strategy risks further riling up Democrats and alienating moderate voters in suburban and urban territory.

There’s something to the culture wars that the Dems haven’t quite figured out — how to make it work for them in these red states in particular,” said one top GOP strategist involved in Senate races. “The message Republicans have right now is a very red-focused message and it peels Republicans away from folks like [Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe] Donnelly.”

But the strategy has had its limits. Republicans attempted a similar tactic in Virginia’s gubernatorial race last year, and lost badly in the Democratic-trending state. They also tried similar attacks in their losing battle to stop now-Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) in a much redder district, though GOP strategists believe the late attacks on law-and-order issues helped tighten that race in its closing days.

We saw the exact same thing in the Virginia governor’s race and we saw how that worked out,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tyler Law. “We knew this was coming.”

Controversial spots have aired in states from Indiana to Arizona.

“The radical left created a media circus, dragging the whole country through the mud for political reasons. And Joe Donnelly is on their side,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee says in a recent spot before tying Donnelly to”paid protestors” and “outrageous lies.”

“Confront them where they eat. Where they sleep. Where they work. That’s the radical left. And Jon Tester’s with them,” a recent ad from Montana state Auditor Matt Rosendale’s (R) campaign says about Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).

Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s (R-TN) Senate campaign says former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) “lured illegal immigrants to Tennessee.”

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley charges that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) “votes against your gun rights, against agriculture, and against conservative judges like Brett Kavanaugh,” while the Senate Leadership Fund accused her of voting for “amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants.”

The SLF also accuses Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) of supporting “sanctuary cities where illegal immigrants can be released on our streets — like this criminal, who was let go and then sexually assaulted a child.”

The GOP is also running hard-hitting ads on immigration and other hot-button issues in some purple states and districts — albeit ones where immigration is always a major issue and border security is a top priority.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) attacks Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) for campaigning with Jane Fonda, while the SLF says Rosen “puts us all at risk” with her immigration votes. And a recent ad from Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) slams Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) for “supporting dangerous sanctuary city policies.”

Democratic strategists admit the attack lines are drawing blood in some of the redder states they need to win for Senate control, as well as in the deeper red House districts they’re hoping to flip.

There’s also evidence Democrats have felt the heat — Donnelly is up with a recent ad of his own disavowing “socialists” and “the radical left.”

Republicans are running similarly charged ads in House races, most but not all of them in redder territory.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, House Republicans’ top super PAC, released a radio ad in 10 right-leaning House districts Friday that ties local candidates to “the liberal mob,” accusing them of “trying to hijack our democracy and steal seats on the United States Supreme Court.”

To shore up Rep. John Faso (R-NY) in a swing district, both the NRCC and CLF have both spent heavily to highlight Antonio Delgado’s past as a rapper, playing some of his more profanity-laced and sexually charged lines in ads. While they argue they’re just highlighting his controversial past statements, Democrats see the attacks on the Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar as a racial dog-whistle.

Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) has sent mailers accusing her Democratic opponent, Katie Porter, of wanting to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, even though Porter says she doesn’t support that policy.

Rep. Claudia Tenney’s (R-NY) latest ad claims her Democratic foe stands for “attacking the second amendment, giving amnesty to illegal aliens, even impeaching President Trump.” The CLF has also attacked former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger, Rep. Dave Brat’s (R-VA) opponent, for working a year at a Saudi-backed Muslim school in the D.C. area dubbed “terror high.”

And that’s not to mention the nativist and misleading ads being run by indicted Reps. Chris Collins (R-NY) and Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA) as they try to hang on to their seats in deep red districts.

The CLF defended their spots, arguing they draw a clear contrast between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the direction of the country — and point out that it’s their job to land the heavy blows while allowing their candidates to define themselves with sunnier spots.

“Our job as the outside group is to be the hammer. We are able to run the ads defining the Democratic candidates and put them on defense,” said CLF strategist Courtney Alexander. “The choice is keeping the Republicans, who will cut your taxes, protect your borders and keep ICE, or Democrats, who always go one step too far.”

These also ads aren’t the only attacks being aired by the GOP — plenty have of spots have focused on Democratic candidates’ personal issues and attacked them as tax-and-spend liberals and on healthcare. And most Republicans have positive spots touting their bios and work as well.

Republicans think the strategy will help in the 2018 Senate map but concede the it’s a double-edged sword, further endangering House Republicans in districts where Trump’s not popular.

“House and gubernatorial [races], maybe not. But it’s good for the Senate,” said the Senate GOP strategist. 

And it may hurt them in the future.

“The next question is, how do you build a party on a culture war platform?” the strategist continued. “And my only answer is man, I hope Trump’s on his game next cycle. Because if not, we’re all toast.”

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