Demonizing immigrants is a losing cause for House GOP

Republicans across the country spent a lot of time and money trying to make the midterm elections about immi...

Posted: Nov 12, 2018 7:18 AM
Updated: Nov 12, 2018 7:18 AM

Republicans across the country spent a lot of time and money trying to make the midterm elections about immigration.

It wasn't just President Donald Trump banging the drum, either. More than $124 million was spent on televised immigration ads this year. That's more than five times the amount spent during the same period leading up the 2014 midterms. Immigration was also the focus of almost 1 in 4 Republican Facebook ads.

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In the end, it proved a losing bet for Republicans in the House. In increasingly safe Republican statewide strongholds like Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, the GOP was able to rely on its base to knock off Democrats in the Senate, and anti-immigrant ads may have helped. But the battlegrounds of the House are increasingly trending in the opposite direction.

The most competitive districts are growing more diverse. Candidates who might have won in the past by courting their base alone faced a changing electorate filled with voters who rejected this approach to immigration.

Virginia offers two prime examples. Of the 300 largest counties in America, Virginia's Loudoun County saw the biggest increase in foreign-born residents between 2010 and 2016, adding more than 37,000 -- a 68% increase in just six years. More than 24% of all residents in the county are foreign-born, and many already are or will soon become voters. Loudon's congressional district, Virginia's 10th, added 13,000 foreign-born voters between 2016 and 2018 alone.

Incumbent Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock ran immigration ads that focused on MS-13 gang members. But her message might not have resonated with a significant portion of her constituents. She lost to Democratic challenger Jennifer Wexton, who ran pro-immigrant ads and flipped a district Republicans had held for almost four decades.

In the 7th District of Virginia, incumbent Rep. Dave Brat ran a slew of anti-immigration ads. That reprised the strategy he used four years ago when he beat the majority leader of his own party in a stunning upset during the Republican primary. But between 2010 and 2016, more than 6,000 immigrants moved to Henrico County. That marked almost a 20% increase in the foreign-born population, and many are or soon will be eligible to vote. This time, Brat lost a tight race.

Similar stories played out across the heartland. In Arizona, Republican Wendy Rogers ran ads calling her state "ground zero in the illegal alien invasion." But since 2016, the Republican-leaning 1st district had added more than 16,000 Hispanic and Asian-American voters. Rogers lost by just more than 17,000 votes.

Each of these failed candidates could have taken a different tack. Elections rarely turn on one issue. But Republicans who saw the changing demographics of their districts and championed sensible immigration policy fared well on Tuesday.

In California, Republican Rep. David Valadao ran a successful and unapologetically pro-immigration campaign. His district had added more than 16,000 Hispanic and Asian-American voters and lost more than 5,000 white voters over the last two years. Valadao's immigration platform called for comprehensive immigration reform and citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And during his debate, he highlighted his split from Trump on immigration and his work to protect Dreamers.

At the New American Economy, we found the number of white voters declined in 44 of the 45 most evenly split districts between 2016 and 2018. In some cases, it fell by more than 2% in just one election cycle. At the same time, the number of Hispanic, Asian-American or foreign-born voters increased in all but one of those districts.

These voters don't vote as a bloc. They don't even rank immigration as their top issue. But it's clear that demonizing them or members of their communities is not smart politics.

For many pundits, the end of the midterms means it's time to start looking ahead to 2020. They should note that in the 45 most evenly split districts alone, an additional 590,000 Hispanic and Asian-American voters will be eligible to vote two years from now. There is no guaranteeing which candidates these potential new voters will favor. But Tuesday's results show Asians and Latinos, along with independents and suburban women, voting in significant numbers for Democrats.

They'll be poised to do so again if Republican House candidates don't heed the lessons of 2018's increasingly diverse swing districts.

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