Campaigns

The ‘squad’ takes center stage in GOP attacks in 2019 state elections

Republican efforts appear to be test run for 2020 messaging strategy

Warnings that Democrats are aligned with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appear prominently in Republican efforts this year to hold on to state legislative seats that could determine which party controls redistricting after the 2020 census. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Take a seat, Nancy Pelosi — you’ve been replaced.

For years, the California Democrat has been the cornerstone of Republican negative attack ads and campaign rhetoric against her party.

But as Republicans work to keep control of key statehouses this fall ahead of the all-important redistricting process that comes with the 2020 census, state and local GOP politicians are building a robust negative campaign strategy against Democratic opponents using a new set of boogeywomen that includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, the organization that helps GOP candidates in state legislative races, unveiled its “Right Lines” initiative for the 2020 cycle last week to support “Republicans in key states where holding legislative majorities matters most” for federal congressional boundaries.

Images of Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York feature front and center on the Right Lines webpage’s banner photo.

Alongside their faces, a message: “Socialism starts in the states. Let’s stop it there, too.”

Further down the page are images of former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who is spearheading a Democratic effort to win back control of statehouses ahead of redistricting; former President Barack Obama; 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton; and billionaire liberal donor George Soros.

Every person pictured on the page is either Jewish, a woman, an ethnic minority, or some combination of the three.

Democrats say the strategy behind the webpage is overtly bigoted.

“I’m not surprised that a racist party is running racist campaign ads,” Omar said.

RSLC communications director Dave Abrams dismissed the notion that Ocasio-Cortez and the others are being targeted for their race or religious affiliation, saying they are the figureheads leading a “radical” leftward shift in the Democratic Party.

“It’s shameful that Democrats continue to hide their radical agenda behind self-manufactured identity politics,” Abrams said.

Ocasio-Cortez’s ouster of a member of  House Democratic leadership in a primary last year has helped pull more members of her caucus, perhaps fearing the same fate, toward aggressively liberal ideas such as the Green New Deal. But generally, legislation that passed the House has followed more traditional themes on issues such as campaign finance and gun control, while efforts to promote ambitious climate action and impeachment remain in the hearing stage.

Trump setting the tone

In July, President Donald Trump targeted Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and fellow Democratic Reps. Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan in a series of racist tweets, telling them to “go back” and “help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

All four are U.S. citizens.

The president’s attacks against the four progressive female freshmen of color — who have nicknamed themselves the “squad” — and the supposed prevalence of “socialism” in the Democratic Party have set the standard for the rest of the GOP, including among many statehouse candidates in 2019 races in Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Jersey.

Democrats picked up 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017, one seat shy of drawing even with the GOP majority there. A net gain of two seats in the House and state Senate this November would give them a majority in each chamber — and control of the redistricting process with Democrat Ralph Northam in the governor’s mansion.

In an interview with conservative radio host John Fredericks in August, Republican state Del. Nick Freitas warned that young progressives in the Virginia statehouse were pulling their older Democratic colleagues to the left, just like, he asserted, the squad is doing in Washington.

“People think it’s excluded to the federal government with people like Tlaib and Omar and Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and I’m telling you it isn’t,” he said.

Freitas, who is using his write-in campaign for a third state House term as a platform to stump for fellow Republican candidates, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Democratic Party of Virginia said it would welcome Republican candidates nationalizing races.

“Donald Trump. That’s all I have to say about it. If they want to nationalize it, great: Donald Trump,” party spokesman Jake Rubenstein said.

A Roanoke College poll from August found Trump with a job approval rating of 27 percent in the commonwealth, with 53 percent disapproving.

Knowing your ‘audience’

In some targeted state races, however, using the squad in negative campaigning could boost Republican candidates.

“These people know their audience,” said Andrea Benjamin, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who specializes in race, politics and local elections.

“Yeah, they’re taking a gamble in some ways. There are going to be people who are upset about it. … But for those people who feel that [lawmakers] who look like that, who represent those groups, who come from those backgrounds … are truly a threat, they feel vindicated and redeemed to know that there’s someone who’s finally saying, ‘This is a problem, and here’s how to fix it,’” Benjamin said.

The Virginia House GOP’s #HoldTheHouse campaign launch video features an image of Ocasio-Cortez as a Fox News host rails against the financial costs of her Green New Deal proposal. 

In New Jersey, state Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, who is up for reelection this fall, accused his Democratic opponents of being part of the “far left … Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party.”

And references to the squad aren’t just confined to 2019 election battlegrounds either.

Last month, the Alabama Republican Party’s executive committee passed a resolution calling for Congress to expel Omar and stating that the U.S. will never be a “socialist” country.

Safety concerns

Aides for the squad have expressed concern that such negative attention on the freshman congresswomen has jeopardized their personal safety.

“It’s different from verbally attacking a presidential candidate, who has Secret Service, or leaders of the parties, who have [U.S. Capitol Police] security details,” one aide said. “They’re specifically targeting freshman members of Congress who don’t have those safety precautions in place.”

Threats against members have seen an uptick in recent years. In fiscal 2018, the Capitol Police dealt with roughly 4,900 threat assessment cases.

Ocasio-Cortez has said she receives death threats “every day.” 

“It’s very clear that when right-wing media starts to heat up, that’s directly correlated to the amount of violent, targeted threats we get,” she said in March.

Test run for 2020

The RSLC’s strategy of tying 2019 state Democratic candidates to Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and other liberal politicians is in many ways a beta test for state, congressional and presidential elections next year. 

“If they can find out that in 2019, ‘Oh, we ran this type of ad in this district, and we saw this group turn out more,’ they’re going to use that in 2020 absolutely,” Benjamin said. “It’s easy data.”

GOP Rep.-elect Dan Bishop won a special election last week in North Carolina’s 9th District after a bitterly fought campaign in which he frequently lampooned his opponent, Democrat Dan McCready, for cozying up to “crazy liberal clowns” and “socialists” in Washington.

Rep. Tom Emmer, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, wrote in a Roll Call op-ed last week that the unified Republican message against Democrats’ “socialist agenda” is what lifted Bishop to a 2-point victory over McCready, even though the district broke for Trump by 12 points in 2016.

Democrats have said McCready outperformed expectations, with Pelosi claiming he “won the campaign,” but not the election.

But Bishop’s win appears to have emboldened Republican operatives pushing the Democrats-as-socialists narrative.

“The Democratic Party has been taken over by far-left lunatics,” said NRCC spokesman Bob Salera, “and each and every House Democrat will own the socialist agenda they’ve enabled.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.