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Story highlights

Karthick Ramakrishnan: At the state and local level, candidates are using racial bullhorns to vie for political office

He says it's not clear whether an explicit racial strategy can be successful beyond the Trump candidacy. Will others succeed with a divisive message?

Editor’s Note: Karthick Ramakrishnan (@karthickr) is professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside and is the co-author, most recently, of “Framing Immigrants: News Coverage, Public Opinion, and Policy.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN —  

How profitable is the politics of race-baiting?

We will soon find out, as New Jersey and Virginia hold races for local and state offices including governor. In the Virginia governor’s race, the Republican nominee Ed Gillespie has aired a series of television ads evoking images of Salvadoran immigrant gang members and has accused his Democratic rival of being soft on crime.

Karthick Ramakrishnan
Woodrow Wilson Center
Karthick Ramakrishnan

This week, we are seeing reports of a local mailer in Edison, New Jersey, sent by an unidentified person or group, targeting two local school board candidates with a post card that reads, “The Chinese and Indians are taking over our town!”

These tactics should shock the conscience of all Americans, and forebode a dark series of congressional and statewide campaigns in 2018 if they are successful.

These race-baiting strategies in Virginia and New Jersey are not entirely new. Gillespie’s ads featuring Salvadoran gang members are eerily reminiscent of the 1988 Willie Horton ad that helped to sink the presidential candidacy of Michael Dukakis. And racial incidents against Asian-Americans in New Jersey date back to the “Dotbuster” attacks against Indian immigrants in the 1980s and local crackdowns on karaoke bars in the 1990s.

What is new, however, is that Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 is triggering a new wave of copycat tactics at the state and local level, using racial bullhorns instead of dog whistles to win political office.

Trump’s victory last November surprised many Republican officials, as he tore to shreds the Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project. In the wake of Mitt Romney’s stinging defeat in 2012, the GOP report urged candidates to soften the party’s image in order to woo Latino and Asian American voters.

It reminded party officials that their brand is one of “tolerance and respect, and we need to ensure that the tone of our message is always reflective of these core principles.” On immigration, the RNC noted that “we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

It wasn’t just the party establishment calling for reform, even conservative commentators like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly voiced their support for a pathway to citizenship.

Trump opted for a completely different path to secure the presidential nomination and, ultimately, the presidency. Far from choosing a welcoming message on immigration and a respectful tone toward Hispanics, he kicked off his campaign with explicit racial appeals about rapists from Mexico and continued with attacks on a Hispanic judge’s ethnic heritage.

He also called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and said in a CNN interview that “Islam hates us,” a far cry from President George W. Bush’s consistent statements that separated the peaceful teachings of Islam from the views of violent extremists.

While far milder statements had failed in previous candidacies such as Pat Buchanan’s campaign in 1992 and Rudy Giuliani’s run in 2008, Trump’s candidacy suggested that Republicans could win political office making racial appeals, not just implicitly but loudly and explicitly.

It is still not clear, however, if this kind of explicit racial strategy can be successful beyond the Trump candidacy. Trump was a dominant media personality and a well-known rule breaker and violator of taboos. Voters could therefore be excused for overlooking his outrageous statements on immigrants and racial minorities and focusing on his purported ability to make good economic deals and vows to “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC.

The same cannot be said for Ed Gillespie, who is the ultimate Washington insider, far milder than Trump, and much less well known. Importantly, however, Gillespie has lent his campaign’s name to the MS-13 ad and has vociferously defended the ad on cable television. The Willie Horton ad, by contrast, was created by a political action committee independent of George H.W. Bush, and the Bush campaign distanced itself from the ad on the campaign trail and during televised debates.

Gillespie is calculating that his racially controversial ads will ultimately help him, not hurt him. So, too, are the apparent backers of the racist mailers in New Jersey, who are whipping up fears of immigrants and racial outsiders to help defeat local school board candidates.

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The only way that these racial appeals will diminish is if they are rejected at the ballot box. Otherwise, we can expect a far greater number of candidates, incumbents as well as challengers, working to add race-baiting advertisements and appeals to their 2018 campaigns.