The commercial opens with an appeal to fear: a hoodie-wearing man prowling an alley, knife in hand. His face remains hidden but the ad makes it clear: He’s an illegal immigrant.
“We need tough immigration enforcement to keep dangerous criminals out,” says the ad by a national conservative political group, part of an effort to help a Republican challenger, Mike Braun, oust a Democratic incumbent in Indiana and capture a U.S. Senate seat in November’s congressional elections.
As they try to hang on to control of Congress, Republican candidates are following the lead of President Donald Trump and turning to rhetoric about immigrants as a tactic to motivate voters. The scope of that strategy emerges in a nationwide Reuters examination of ad buys, candidates’ social media posts and polling, as well as dozens of interviews with candidates, voters and campaign strategists.
Immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native born Americans
The trend is especially visible on Twitter. Congressional Republicans seeking re-election have dramatically increased the number of tweets they post about immigration since Trump’s election, a Reuters/Ipsos analysis of social media shows. Immigration messaging has surged across the spectrum of Republican-held districts – highly competitive swing seats and reliably Republican ones, in places with immigrant populations both large and small.
The shift also shows up in the campaign ad wars. In races from Florida to California, in border states and ones with few immigrants, Republicans have poured millions of dollars into advertising that depict illegal immigrants as criminals and vowed enthusiastic support for Trump’s proposed wall at the Mexican border, the Reuters review shows.
This year, 20 percent of pro-Republican ads in congressional races have cited immigration, according to an analysis of broadcast advertising data through Oct. 15. That’s up from 8 percent in the same period of the 2014 congressional elections and 5 percent in the 2010 races. The analysis was conducted for Reuters by Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political ads.
Spending on Republican ads that mention immigration has more than doubled to $62.4 million this year from the 2014 elections and has quadrupled since the 2010 races, the Kantar Media/CMAG data shows. Immigration ad spending has also surged in state-level races. (Kantar Media/CMAG estimated earlier this month that total political ad spending for broadcast television would rise to $2.7 billion this year from $2.1 billion in 2014.)
In February, as Braun vied for the party’s nomination for the Indiana Senate seat, he ran a commercial highlighting a deadly highway crash involving a drunk driver who was in the country illegally. “There are lives at stake,” Braun said in the ad. In an interview with Reuters, he said he was not trying to demonize immigrants but was “making a point that border security is important.”
In Indiana, only about 5 percent of the state’s residents are immigrants, compared with 13.6 percent in the United States as a whole. But in the last two months, nearly a third of television ads sponsored or partially sponsored by Braun have mentioned immigration, said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, a nonpartisan group tracking televised political advertising. Trump won Indiana by nearly 20 points in the 2016 election.
The attack ad featuring the knife-wielding immigrant was produced by One Nation, a political nonprofit. Spokesman Chris Pack said in a statement that the group works independently of campaigns and “strongly supports the efforts of the President and congressional leadership to reform our broken immigration system.
A number of Republican ads link illegal immigrants to crime, but statistics paint a more nuanced picture. While people in the United States illegally have in some instances committed high-profile crimes, multiple studies – including ones from conservative groups like the Cato Institute - have found that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.