Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Was Defeated in the 2018 Midterm Elections
In what has been coined the “blue wave,” the 2018 midterm elections resulted in 40 seats being flipped from Republican to Democratic control, the largest midterm gains by Democrats since Watergate in 1974. While candidates debated a number of critical issues this election season—including health care, Supreme Court appointees, and the economy—many candidates followed the lead of President Donald Trump, putting an overwhelming emphasis on pushing anti-immigrant and restrictionist messages in the hope of energizing voters. As races were called, and as a wide variety of polling has shown, it is clear: Anti-immigrant fearmongering did not work.
Polling proves that the American public supports immigrants
Polling shows that voters are not on board with President Trump’s immigration stance. An election eve poll in key states and congressional districts showed that voters—including 77 percent of Latinos, 68 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, 74 percent of African Americans, 59 percent of Native Americans, and 56 percent of white women—rejected the Trump administration and Republicans candidates’ negative portrayal of immigrants. Instead, voters supported legislation to make America more welcoming to immigrants.
President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies may even be helping to solidify support for immigrants and sensible immigration policy among a majority of the American public, especially young voters. According to Gallup polling, 75 percent of Americans think immigration is a good thing for the country today—the highest figure in 17 years. Moreover, 57 percent of Americans oppose or strongly oppose the expansion of walls along the U.S.-Mexico border, and 83 percent favor or strongly favor giving immigrants who arrived to the country as children the opportunity to become U.S. citizens, as long as they meet certain requirements.
In the same poll, when asked whether immigration should be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased, a greater share of Americans supported increasing or maintaining the current level of immigration than at any point since Gallup first posed the question in June 1965. Given the polling, it is no surprise that the incoming House of Representatives will be the most pro-immigrant since the 19th century.
Candidates who openly embraced Trump’s immigration rhetoric lost
Following in the president’s footsteps, several Republican candidates attempted to use anti-immigrant messaging in an effort to get people to the polls. One of President Trump’s biggest supporters, Kris Kobach—a candidate in the Kansas gubernatorial race and a prominent voice in the U.S. nativist movement—made it a campaign promise to encourage undocumented immigrants living in the state to leave. Ultimately, his tough immigration policies, coupled with his history of voter suppression, cost him the race.
Similar fearmongering over immigration played out in other states. Virginia House candidates Barbara Comstock (R) and Dave Brat (R), as well as Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner (R), embraced President’s Trump extreme rhetoric, only to lose.
Comstock, in an attempt to target opponent Jennifer Wexton’s (D) pro-immigration stance, ran an ad that played various news clips of violence caused by the MS-13 gang. In one clip, a voice-over says, “kidnapped, shot, and burned in his car by MS-13 gang members” while a picture of Wexton is shown on screen beside the text, “Jennifer Wexton Opposes the Removal of Criminal Alien Gang Members from Our Country.” Meanwhile, Dave Brat stated in an ad that his opponent, Abigail Spanberger (D), had “no comment on the Honduran caravan” because she “supports open borders.” And perhaps most egregiously, Scott Wagner ran an ad that used inflammatory language in an attempt to appeal to voters’ fear: “A dangerous caravan of illegals careens to the border, two more behind it, and liberal Tom Wolf [the incumbent governor] is laying out the welcome mat … He opposes President Trump’s call to send troops to the border and supports dangerous sanctuary cities, which attract even more illegals.”
These attempts to win over voters by taking harsh anti-immigrant stances failed. Meanwhile, Wexton, Spanberger, and Wolf adopted messages that acknowledged that the current immigration system is broken and that policies are needed to fix it—including bipartisan comprehensive reform, protections for Dreamers, and/or accountability for the Trump administration’s family separation and detention policy. The fact that these three candidates all won their races is a clear indication that voters preferred solutions-based strategies over divisive ones.
The Immigration Hub and the Global Strategy Group looked at two battleground states, Pennsylvania and Colorado, and found that voters were not convinced by the anti-immigrant rhetoric on the caravan and sanctuary cities. In fact, their polling found that these attacks actively backfired, giving people a reason to vote against candidates. Furthermore, according to a pre-election online survey conducted by Change Research, anti-immigrant ads across the country did not help campaigns. For example, in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, 62 percent of women and 71 percent of Hispanics said they were less likely to support President Trump’s immigration policies after watching the president’s caravan ad that ran ahead of the midterms. Meanwhile, a survey conducted in Pennsylvania by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) found that 62 percent of moderate suburban female voters did not support Scott Wagner’s caravan ad. These results are reminiscent of last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race, during which then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) beat Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate who ran on the allegation that Northam, if elected governor, would give way to Virginians being terrorized by the MS-13 gang.
Quietly supporting the president’s policies also cost candidates
It was not only candidates with strong anti-immigrant messages who lost. Candidates who sided with the president’s anti-immigrant legislative agenda or who were cautious to speak out in support of Dreamers also lost.
Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Jeff Denham (R-CA) tried to appear as centrists on immigration issues even though they were original co-sponsors of the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act, a “compromise immigration bill” that included a convoluted and merit-based pathway to citizenship for some Dreamers, as well as drastic cuts to legal immigration and $25 billion for a border wall. If it had passed, the bill would have given Border Patrol agents the ability to detain unaccompanied children for up to 30 days and authorized indefinite detention of families in place of the horrific practice of separating families at the border. Floridians and Californians saw through this facade and voted Curbelo and Denham out.
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) also lost his re-election. Coffman was the sponsor of the BRIDGE Act, a bill that would provide only temporary protection for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, and often sided with President Trump on immigration. He publicly denounced family separation yet voted to allow the government to incarcerate entire families and jail unaccompanied children for up to 30 days.
Last month, voters spoke loud and clear at the polls. They elected individuals who presented an alternative vision to the anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric of President Trump and many candidates whose views aligned with Trump’s. Given the results of recent polling and the midterm elections themselves, it is clear that the American public wants Congress to embrace a more welcoming approach to immigration and create a policy landscape that reflects America’s values of protecting communities and providing freedom and justice for all.
Laura Muñoz Lopez is a special assistant for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.
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Laura Muñoz Lopez
Policy and Advocacy Assistant