elections of 2019

Republicans Going All-Out Red Scare in Off-Year Elections

The awful specter of a red Kentucky. Photo: Jason Riley/Twitter

All political campaigns engage in both swing-voter persuasion and base-mobilization efforts, and it’s not news that the latter tends to become more prominent as actual voting grows near, swing voters make up their minds, and generating turnout is at a premium. Often candidates and parties choose to reach out to marginal voters in their base with vein-charring messages essentially suggesting that civilization as we know it is at risk if the Other Party wins a particular election. But we are seeing signs from 2019’s off-year elections that Republicans are really going to town with claims that even mild-mannered, moderate Democrats are actually agents of sinister totalitarian forces.

That this is happening in a state like Kentucky isn’t surprising. It’s a very conservative, energy-producing state, home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a Republican-controlled legislature. The last five GOP presidential nominees have won the state by a minimum of 15 points (Donald Trump won by 29 points). So anything that promotes maximum partisan and ideological polarization, and high partisan turnout, is good for the GOP there.

That’s why Kentucky voters are seeing mailers like the one depicted above, clearly modeled on 1930s-era Soviet posters of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin, but with the evil commie trio of Warren, AOC, and Bernie flanking Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear, who is about as much of a socialist as Mitch McConnell is a model of bipartisanship. There’s even a hammer and sickle on it; subtle it is not. You have to figure it’s targeting older voters who actually remember the USSR but don’t understand that there’s a bit of a difference between Stalinism and democratic socialism.

While this sort of lurid agitprop makes twisted sense in Kentucky, what’s surprising is that it’s surfacing in purple-to-blue Virginia, where Republican extremism had a lot to do with big Democratic wins in the state elections of 2017 (Democrats swept the statewide offices and came very close to flipping the House of Delegates) and the federal elections of 2018 (when Dems flipped three U.S. House seats in the state). As the Washington Post reports, Republicans battling to hang on to control of the legislature have spent many months depicting themselves as mild-mannered moderates, but are turning savage as Election Day approaches:

GayDonna Vandergriff has spent much of the year running for the House of Delegates with Hillary-blue campaign signs and a website that touts public schools and the environment but makes no mention that she’s a Republican.

But days before Tuesday’s state election, Vandergriff is executing a hard right turn toward her GOP base. She is blasting her opponent, Democratic incumbent Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg, as a “socialist” who wants to abort babies at the moment of birth and “chooses illegal immigrants over his own constituents.”

In crucial swing districts, from Northern Virginia to Richmond to Hampton Roads, Republican candidates are trying to turn out GOP voters while hoping they can hang on to the centrist images they cultivated all summer. To pull it off, they’re casting Democrats as extremists — invoking hot-button issues such as abortion and immigration that Republicans had largely avoided as they attempted to soften their connection to an unpopular President Trump.

Virginia is a state that has very little early voting (though that’s scheduled to change in 2020), and thus may have an atypically sharp transition between general-electorate messaging and pure GOTV (Get Out the Vote) thunder and lightning. But it’s interesting that some Republican candidates are doing their Red Scare number not in mailers that most undecided and opposing-party voters will never see, but in TV ads:

Sen. Glen H. Sturtevant (R-Richmond), considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents because his district has become increasingly blue, initially focused on health care in a campaign that could have been mistaken for a Democrat’s …

But Sturtevant, who has spent nearly $1 million on TV ads, has recently lobbed sharp attacks at his Democratic challenger, Ghazala Hashmi. “Hashmi’s radical politics are just like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” one ad says, referring to the liberal first-term New York congresswoman.

Another ad pairs Hashmi’s image with those of Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Democratic Socialist running for president. “Ghazala Hashmi wants to bring Washington’s extreme socialist agenda to Virginia,” it says.

It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the days when Republicans tried to tie every Democrat in the country to Nancy Pelosi and her hippie, sodomite city of San Francisco.

But the really sobering thought is that if Republicans are resorting to this level of world-class smear in an off-year election in Virginia, what will the Trump reelection campaign do when things get intense next year? Unlike Virginia Republicans, the president has clearly staked everything on a nasty combo platter of energizing his base with shrill and hateful appeals, limiting swing-voter persuasion, and spreading misinformation alleging wild yet plenary Democratic extremism. This may be a late GOTV tactic this year. Next year it’s likely to be wall-to-wall from Day One. Get ready to revisit Soviet propaganda (perhaps mixed up with the occasional image from Mao-era China and Fidel-era Cuba) early and often. The Keep America Great campaign will likely regret the president’s close friendship with Kim Jong-un. There’s no propaganda more terrifying than North Korea’s.

Republicans Going All-Out Red Scare in Off-Year Elections