Sen. Jeff Flake flew quickly to the defense of one of his 2018 Democratic challengers on Twitter late Tuesday in response to anti-Muslim comments posted on her Facebook page.
“Hang in there @deedra2018,” the Arizona Republican encouraged Deedra Abboud, a 45-year-old Phoenix immigration and estate planning lawyer, after seeing an Arizona Republic story pointing out some of the hateful comments. Abboud, a Muslim, launched her campaign to unseat Flake in April.
“Sorry you have to put up with this. Lots of wonderful people across AZ. You’ll find them,” the senator wrote.
Abboud’s campaign responded on Twitter a few hours later thanking Flake for his “leadership in rejecting behavior that doesn’t reflect our American values.” She added, “AZ’s amazing people deserve more of this.”
— Deedra2018 (@deedra2018) July 19, 2017
Abboud told Roll Call on Wednesday that, as a civil rights advocate for the last 15 years now running for office, she expected a steady flow of online vitriol to come her way — just not to this degree.
“This is something I thought we left behind during the civil rights movement,” she said. “But it’s back and stronger than ever.”
An Abboud campaign spokeswoman said in a statement that Flake’s sympathetic tweets provide “an opportunity to change the landscape. Our elected leaders should be leading in the civil discourse of calling out behavior that does not reflect our American values and of being competitive without character attacks.”
“People are ready for leadership and are tired of negative campaigns,” the spokeswoman added. “You can show you are the better candidate without personal attacks on ethnicity, religion, color, looks, and fashion.”
Flake is running for second term next year. After serving six terms in the House, he won election to the Senate in 2012, defeating Democrat Richard Carmona by 3 points.
He faces a potentially daunting primary challenge from other Republicans after being a harsh critic of candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Republican Kelli Ward, a former state senator who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. John McCain last year, has already announced she will try her hand at unseating Flake this time around.
Democrats have not won a Senate election in Arizona since Sen. Dennis DeConcini won re-election in 1988.
Abboud, who converted to Islam 19 years ago, helped found Arizona’s first office for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in 2003.
“Not just because Muslims were facing anger and fearmongering, but because I am an American,” she said. “Because I have always believed in our compassion and our strength in our country that can come together.”
Abboud has staked her campaign message on improving the education system, protecting the 2010 health care law from Republican efforts to repeal it, and making herself more available to constituents than the incumbent.
Yet many on Facebook haven’t seemed able to look past the fact that Abboud wears a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf.
A recent campaign post on Facebook championing the constitutional separation of church and state was a particular magnet for hateful comments.
One commenter told Abboud, “Get with the times and get rid of the rag on ur head. Adapt or G’bye.”
Some were more direct: “F— you Muslim b—-,” one user wrote.
But others have offered words of support.
“Intolerance sucks. Kudos to you for announcing your candidacy,” a person commented on the post. Another encouraged her to “ignore the hate,” and added, “I don’t know if I’ll support your campaign, but my decision will have absolutely nothing to do with your faith. Stay strong!”
Far-right activists sabotaged a campaign meet-and-greet at a restaurant outside Phoenix in May when they caught wind of the event.
But the hateful comments and protests don’t seem to have fazed Abboud, who said she leaves the comments up on her page to “let people see for themselves that this is real.”
“It’s not just a couple of jerks who need to be ignored,” she said. “They’re out-and-out bullies trying to intimidate anyone they think is inferior from sticking their head out above their station. We’ve ignored them into empowerment, and that has to stop.”