The arrest of an undocumented Mexican immigrant in the killing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts seemed tailor-made for Republican campaigning in the midterms.
On Aug. 21, more than a month after the 20-year-old disappeared during an evening jog near rural Brooklyn, Iowa, the discovery of her body and the arrest of 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera came at almost the same time as the conviction of President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort on eight counts of tax-related crimes, and the guilty plea by Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, implicating the president in campaign-finance violations. As legal analysts and political pundits paraded onto cable news panels to discuss the potential ramifications for Trump’s presidency, Fox News had turned its attention to a story that was sure to pique the interest of its most powerful viewer. It’s unclear if that’s where Trump learned that authorities in Iowa had charged Rivera, a Mexican farmworker who’d reportedly been in the country illegally for about seven years, with Tibbetts’s slaying. But when he took the stage at a campaign rally in West Virginia that night, Trump made sure to bring up the news about “the illegal alien coming in very sadly from Mexico,” avoiding any mention of Manafort or Cohen.
“Should have never happened,” Trump told his supporters of Tibbetts’s death, seizing the newly reported tragedy as an opportunity to reiterate his regular calls for a crackdown on illegal immigration. “The immigration laws are such a disgrace. We’re getting it changed but we have to get more Republicans.”
The next day, Axios reported that executive editor Mike Allen had received a not-so-subtle email from former House speaker and Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich, encouraging the news site to cover the Tibbetts story.
“If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble,” Gingrich wrote. “If we can be blocked by Manafort-Cohen, etc., then GOP could lose [the House] badly.”
Political experts are divided over just how much weight Tibbetts’s death will carry in the 2018 midterms. While some believe the killing has the potential to influence certain races, others suggest the incident has lost some of its political salience, even in the state where it took place. Not only have Tibbetts’s parents explicitly rejected the politicization of their daughter’s death, but, skeptics argue, most voters aren’t likely to change their stance on an issue like immigration because of a single isolated incident.
Though politically serendipitous in its timing, Rivera’s arrest seemed to offer more to the GOP than a simple distraction from the previous day’s onslaught of bad news. It was a real-life example of the kind of illegal immigrant violence Trump had been denouncing since he rode down the escalator of his gilded Manhattan skyscraper and declared that Mexico was sending rapists and criminals over the Southern border to wreak havoc on innocent Americans. During the presidential campaign, Trump talked about Kate Steinle, the 32-year-old woman fatally shot in San Francisco, apparently accidentally, by Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a Mexican national who’d previously been deported from the U.S. five times. Despite a string of drug-related felony convictions, Zarate had evaded a sixth deportation following his 2015 release from jail on another drug charge, thanks to San Francisco’s sanctuary law, which blocked local police from turning immigrants over to federal immigration agents unless they’d been convicted of a violent felony. More than three years later, as they try to recapture Trump’s momentum in the 2018 midterms, Republicans are eager for a new face to represent the victims of a violent immigrant-crime epidemic that, according to all reliable data available, does not exist.
Even before the Tibbetts story broke, immigration had been the focus of most Republican TV campaign ads in the 2018 election cycle. In July, Gallup reported that immigration had climbed to the top of the list of issues concerning Americans for only the second time in Gallup’s 83-year history, with 22 percent naming immigration as the country’s “most important problem.” (The other time this happened was during the surge of unaccompanied migrant children across the Southwest border in 2014.) A number of Republicans in Iowa and other parts of the country quickly followed the president’s lead, issuing tweets and press releases that combined condolences for the Tibbetts family with calls for tougher immigration laws. However, halfway to October, it’s unclear whether the case will be the vehicle to carry Republicans to victory in the 2018 midterms.
“The Democrats are pushing policies that are a direct existential threat to the lives of innocent Americans,” wrote Donald Trump Jr. in an op-ed late last month, ignoring repeated requests from Tibbetts’s family that the slain college student not be used as a political talking point.
Trump himself has repeatedly made similar efforts to equate Democratic policies — and immigration from Central America in general — with violence committed by MS-13, a violent street gang comprised largely of Central American immigrants, by appearing in public with parents of MS-13’s victims.
Virginia Senate hopeful Corey Stewart is among the GOP candidates outside Iowa who has most aggressively embraced Gingrich’s call to action, making Tibbetts the subject of tweets, a campaign video, and at least one fundraising email claiming that “if we had built the border wall… Mollie Tibbetts would still be alive today.” The email, which closely resembles those issued by the Trump campaign, calls Tibbetts “a victim of globalist, open borders politicians like Tim Kaine who are refusing to do their job to protect you and your family.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Kaine’s campaign declined to comment on Stewart’s attacks invoking Tibbetts. But experts suggest that the results of last year’s gubernatorial election likely offer a good indication of how such messaging will play out in Virginia. In that race, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie received fierce backlash for a number of racially charged and misleading campaign ads focused on the violent Latino street gang MS-13, a favorite Trump villain, which has a substantial presence in Virginia. Though impossible to quantify their impact, the divisive ads are considered among the factors that contributed to Gillespie’s defeat, by significant margins, by Democrat Ralph Northam. Even Gillespie tried to distance himself from the ads after the election.
However, “not every part of the country looks like the three big urban areas in Virginia that rejected Gillespie,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the nonpartisan election newsletter of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Kondik suggested that efforts to highlight immigrant crimes like the Tibbetts killing will likely resonate more in “areas that are whiter, more rural, more working-class.”
After all, fear-mongering attacks on foreigners, whether Mexican or Muslim, were a central part of Trump’s presidential campaign.
“I think the sort of hawkishness on immigration is why Trump got the nomination.” said Kondik, adding, “Just because something seems ugly does not mean that it’s ineffective. I think the president has shown that.”
Ryan Enos, a Harvard political scientist who’s done extensive research on how geography and segregation impact attitudes on immigration and race, agrees.
“There’s absolutely the potential for this kind of messaging to be effective, especially in places where it appears that non-immigrants have a fear of immigrants, usually from increased immigrant population,” he said, pointing to places like Iowa, rural Pennsylvania, and other parts of the Midwest that have recently experienced a rapid influx in immigrant population, as areas where voters “seemed particularly receptive to anti-immigrant messaging, particularly the stuff we saw from Donald Trump.”
In the current election cycle, Enos predicted that such rhetoric has the potential to be most potent in races where Democrats are trying to hold on to seats in states and districts that went for Trump two years ago. For example, Pennsylvania’s newly drawn Eighth Congressional District, where Republican John Chrin has regularly employed Trumpian talking points about sanctuary cities and the border wall in his campaign to unseat Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright.
Recently, Chrin’s campaign aired an advertisement that used the rape of a 5-year-old girl by “by an illegal given sanctuary in Philadelphia” to accuse Cartwright of supporting sanctuary policies.
Mike Szustak, a senior communications consultant for Cartwright’s reelection campaign, said that not only is the exploitation of such a heinous crime “disgusting” and “abhorrent,” but the ad’s portrayal of Cartwright’s record on sanctuary cities is also inaccurate. In addition to the votes highlighted in the ad, Szustak noted that the Democratic congressman has also more recently voted alongside House Republicans on bills to increase penalties for deportees caught reentering the country illegally and as well as another, named for Kate Steinle, which seeks to cut federal funding from local governments that refuse to cooperate with immigration agents.
“We’re highlighting the fact that Chrin’s ad is a lie,” Szustak said, while also hoping that Chrin’s messaging on immigration will turn voters off.
“People will come up to the congressman and say, unprompted, ‘That ad is disgusting,’” said Szustak. “I think it’s backfiring on [Chrin].”
Alex Nowrasteh, a senior immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute thinks the electoral impact of the Tibbets case has been overestimated.
“Individual instances like these rarely change people’s minds about a broader issue like immigration,” said Nowrasteh, arguing that such changes to people’s views usually happen gradually, over time. He also points out that, unlike in the case of Kate Steinle, Iowa doesn’t have sanctuary cities. In fact, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill earlier this year banning them. Without a specific state or local policy to blame for the Rivera’s presence in Iowa, Nowrasteh suggested that the Tibbetts case is “missing that extra ingredient that would make it a politically powerful call to the ballot box.”
“There’s no one really to blame for this except the murderer,” he said.
On the national level, Democrats do not seem to consider the GOP’s latest efforts to stoke fears of immigrant crime enough of a threat to merit a counter-attack. In a statement to Yahoo News, Tyler Law, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dismissed such attacks by candidates like Chrin as “a reflection of the fact that House Republicans don’t have a message that resonates with voters.”
Like Cartwright’s district in Pennsylvania, Tibbetts’s home state is another that has seen a significant influx of immigrants in recent years. Iowa, which swung red for Trump in 2016, is also the setting of several especially tight midterm battles between incumbent Republicans and Democratic challengers. But while some Iowa officials, like Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who is not up for re-election, have doubled down on their attempts to use the Tibbetts death to push for tougher immigration laws, others, like Gov. Kim Reynolds, appear to be jumping off the bandwagon following calls from Tibbetts’s parents to leave their child’s name out of the immigration debate.
Reynolds is running for her first full term as governor after assuming the office last year when then Gov. Terry Branstad stepped down to become ambassador to China. In her initial response to Tibbetts’s death, Reynolds decried the U.S.’s “broken immigration system” for allowing “a predator like this to live in our community.” The following week, she denied politicizing the tragedy, and denounced others who attempted to do so.
Meanwhile, Republican Iowa Reps. Rod Blum and David Young, who are both also currently engaged in particularly tight midterm races, have attempted to steer clear of the issue. Young’s campaign has insisted it had nothing to do with a telephone survey that began targeting voters in this district the day after Tibbetts’s suspected killer was arrested. The poll reportedly referenced Tibbetts’s death along with the inaccurate claim that Young’s Democratic challenger Cindy Axne supports abolishing ICE.
The immediate rush by Republicans to politicize Tibbetts’s death did not sit well with many of Iowa’s young voters who, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, could have the decisive vote in some of the state’s key elections.
“I think young people here in Iowa know immigrants and know undocumented people in their communities, on their campuses, and want people to be treated fairly,” said Haley Hager, the Iowa state youth director for NextGen America, a political action committee aimed at recruiting young voters to flip the House in 2018. Though NextGen is focused on rallying support for Democrats, Hager noted that young conservatives in Iowa have also rejected Republican’s messaging around Tibbetts. The student board of conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA’s University of Iowa chapter resigned in protest after the group’s national leadership encouraged them to politicize their classmate’s slaying.
“Young people are a lot smarter than people give them credit for, and they can see right through this,” Hager said. They “know that Republicans aren’t doing this for a safety issue. It’s more just a race-baiting tactic.”
Hager said NextGen’s team in Iowa has registered more than 10,000 voters ages 18 to 35 across the state since February. Though their outreach efforts are most heavily focused on the races for governor, as well as Blum’s and Young’s districts, Hager said the group has registered more than 2,000 students in the Fourth Congressional District long held by the notoriously anti-immigrant Rep. Steve King.
Even King’s district — the most heavily Republican in the state — has become increasingly competitive as Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten has managed to out-raise the eight-term Republican for the past three quarters. According to the Sioux City Journal, King’s increasingly inflammatory and racially charged remarks on immigration have driven Democratic donors from all 50 states to contribute to Scholten’s campaign. Since July, three major national congressional ratings sites, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the Cook Political Report, and Roll Call’s Inside Elections have all moved the race for King’s seat from the “Safe” and “Solid” GOP categories to “Likely” Republican.
Scholten, who is courting the support of farmers, is a proponent of establishing a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants and reforming existing visa programs to include the kind of year-round workers needed by the state’s agriculture and farming industries.
He told Yahoo News he has felt no need to shy away from that message in the wake of Tibbetts’s death.
“There is a shortage of labor in this district,” Scholten said. “Whether it’s agriculture, construction, or manufacturing, the owners, the businessmen and women, they want solutions.”
Scholten declined to speak directly about Tibbetts’s case, “out of respect for the family.” Meanwhile, King, after issuing a surprisingly nonpartisan reaction to the news of Tibbetts’s death, quickly shifted gears to blaming “leftists” and “political correctness” for failing to enforce immigration laws. He’s continued to defend his politicization of the killing despite the family’s wishes, insisting “we need to address it when people are paying attention.”
It’s unclear whether Tibbetts’s death has breathed new life into King’s anti-immigrant campaign, but a recent poll released this week shows King leading Scholten by only 10 points, less than half the percent by which he won his last reelection bid in 2016. Another poll, conducted between Sept. 5 and Sept. 9 showed Scholten just six points behind King.
“I feel that having a message about immigration reform is something that’s receptive in this district, despite King’s rhetoric,” said Scholten.
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