The fierce battle for control of Congress and the nation’s governorships has turned toward blatant and overtly racial attacks rarely seen since the civil rights era of the 1960s.
A new robo-call going out to voters in Georgia features a voice impersonating Oprah Winfrey and calling Stacey Abrams, who is running to become the nation’s first black woman elected governor, “a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.” In Florida, the Trump administration’s Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue urged voters not to elect Andrew Gillum, who would be the state’s first black governor, with a colloquialism widely seen as having racial connotations: “This election is so cotton-pickin’ important.”
Some Republicans drew a line on what words they found offensive when they suddenly scrambled, following the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, to distance themselves from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). The moves came after King defended his ties to a far-right Austrian party with historical Nazi ties, only the latest in a years-long alliance by King with white nationalist individuals and groups. But much of the party was silent.
The 2016 election confirmed that a potential president could run — and win — after stoking racism. Now, in their closing days, the midterms are shaping up as a demonstration of whether the entire Republican Party can succeed by following his lead.
By running so overtly on racially tinged messages, the GOP is putting that explosive form of politics on the ballot. If Republicans maintain control of the House, the notion of running a campaign built on blunt, race-based attacks on immigrants and minorities will have been validated. A loss, on the other hand, might prompt a number of Republicans to call for a rethinking of the party’s direction — but that would collide with a sitting president who, if anything, relishes over-the-edge rhetoric.
The stakes for the party’s future are immense. Republicans now are an overwhelmingly white party, whereas Democrats represent a multiethnic coalition. The problem for Republicans is that the nation is moving swiftly in the direction of Democratic demographics.
“The long-term risks are obvious. The country is rapidly becoming more diverse, and appealing to a more diverse electorate requires a much more inclusive message,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster and strategist. “Those who are firmly committed to Donald Trump are not the least bit concerned. But people in the party who are concerned about how Republicans might actually win a majority of the popular vote or win swing states and districts . . . then they’re very concerned.”
King is perhaps most emblematic of how far out the lines of offensiveness are being drawn. The eight-term congressman has spent most of his career playing on the racial and xenophobic fringes, drawing praise from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, blocking efforts to put abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, and displaying a Confederate battle flag on his congressional office desk.
He said in 2013 that most children of undocumented immigrants “have got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” he tweeted in 2017.
King’s campaign did not return several messages seeking comment.
It was only recently, after The Washington Post reported that he met with the far-right Austrian party and when he endorsed a white nationalist mayoral candidate in Toronto, that Republicans denounced him. But the denunciations came after the synagogue shootings; beforehand, the remarks had raised little fuss.
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who is head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, last week issued a broad condemnation of King, calling his comments “completely inappropriate” and saying “we must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms.” The conservative National Review ran a piece headlined, “Conservatives Need to Draw the Line at Steve King.”
“He used to be just simply problematic, prone to saying outrageous things particularly about Latinos and immigration,” said Karl Rove, the veteran Republican strategist. “But he’s gotten worse over time. Now he’s hanging around with neo-Nazis in Austria and aligning himself with anti-Semitic fringe figures in Canadian politics. His rhetoric has gotten similarly worse.”
As Rove’s comment implied, the party had not cracked down hard on King’s earlier objectionable statements. Top party leaders for the most part have attempted to portray him as an outlier, rather than a symbol of a larger problem within the party.
The president, too, has escaped much criticism, even though he salted his 2016 campaign with racial insults to Mexicans, Muslims and others, and has continued in that vein as president. Part of the danger for would-be critics: Alienating Trump by calling out his rhetoric risks losing the support of the voters who overwhelmingly chose him as their party nominee two years ago.
“It’s harder to deal with Trump,” said Craig Robinson, who runs a political blog called the Iowa Republican. “In some ways with Trump being president you would think a guy like Steve King would have more room to operate. You have a president who is out of bounds sometimes. You’d think it’d give King more latitude. But it’s actually the opposite.”
Trump has hardly been cowed by the criticism of King or occasional pleas to tone down his language. As the campaign has barreled toward the final hours, the president expanded his nativist appeals, proudly calling himself a “nationalist” and trying to drive his base with threats about a caravan of Central Americans creeping toward the U.S. border with Mexico.
“Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight,” he said on Saturday afternoon while touting the work of the military troops he’d ordered to the border.
Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel made the case Sunday that the midterms should focus primarily on the economy, not immigration.
“The president has not said that he wants it just to be about the caravan,” she said, speaking on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos. “He’s saying, ‘Let’s look at the record, and are you better off than you were two years ago?’ He’s talking about the economy. It’s just not getting the same coverage. The economy should be first and foremost in a lot of people’s minds when they’re going to the polls.”
McDaniel declined to answer whether she was concerned about a backlash to Trump’s heated rhetoric about immigration, which on Thursday included a suggestion that U.S. troops stationed at the border could open fire on migrants if they threw rocks. He backed off that idea on Friday.
Candidates in the past have tapped obliquely into racial undercurrents during political campaigns. Ronald Reagan talked of “welfare queens” and George H.W. Bush played on racial fears with an ad in his 1988 campaign about a black convict, Willie Horton.
But the attacks are now much more blatant and out in the open, at a level not seen since the 1950s and 1960s, according to Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University.
“It’s quite extraordinary. It goes beyond criticizing their views,” he said. “This is using very racially tinged language. It’s very remarkable to hear from a president, and now it’s seeping down to candidates running below the presidential level. And it’s spread beyond the small fringe now.”
The most blatant charges of racism have come in the South, where candidates Abrams and Gillum are attempting to become the first black governors of their states. The president has led the charge against them, calling Gillum “not equipped” and Abrams”not qualified” to be governor despite their long experience in government. Gillum is the mayor of Tallahassee and Abrams is a longtime legislator.
“There is certainly a throwback element to the language we’re hearing coming out of the Republican Party that is unfortunately disparaging to communities,” Abrams told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday. “It may be unintentional, but it signals a deeper misinformation about what Andrew Gillum can accomplish, what I can accomplish.”
The robo-calls that have gone out in Georgia purport to be from Winfrey, who campaigned last week for Abrams.
“This is the magical Negro, Oprah Winfrey, asking you to make my fellow Negress, Stacey Abrams, the governor of Georgia,” the message says, according to a copy obtained by WSB-TV in Atlanta. “Years ago the Jews who own the American media saw something in me — the ability to trick dumb white women into thinking I was like them. And to do, read and think what I told them to.”
“I see that same potential in Stacey Abrams,” the message continues. “Where others see a poor man’s Aunt Jemima, I see someone white women can be tricked into voting for — especially the fat ones.”
Similar calls have gone out in Florida, with a voice mimicking Gillum as jungle sounds and chimpanzee noises can be heard in the background.
One Republican group — called Black Americans for the President’s Agenda — released a radio ad in Arkansas that warned: “White Democrats will be lynching black folk again.”
“Trump has made clear that [the nativism and bigotry] gene hasn’t gone away, and Trump’s candidacy and victory marked its liberation from many prior constraints,” said Bill Kristol, a veteran conservative commentator and editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard. “The Republican establishment has been floundering in its attempts to respond to this new moment.”
In King’s district in Iowa, his Democratic opponent, J.D. Scholten, feels as if he’s been given a gift. He’s raised more than $1 million over the past week, and a district that Trump won by 27 points suddenly seems competitive.
“He’s given us every opportunity to win,” Scholten said of King on Sunday. “I feel almost like he’s trolling me. Like at the end we’re going to have a beer and he’s going to say, ‘J.D., I’ve been trying to lose this seat for 14 years and finally you’ve done it.’”