If you’ve been watching the World Series or live in a state with a Senate-deciding election on the line, you’ve probably seen campaign ads
depicting migrants as “drug dealers, sex traffickers, and violent predators.” Others warn of “X-rated drag shows for kids” and the prospect of felony charges “if your school wants to change your kid’s gender and you don’t agree.” The commercials depict Black Americans engaging in acts of violence as a narrator says these “hardened criminals” have “no fear of any consequence at all. Instead, you are made to live in fear.”
The ads have been flagged on YouTube as “inappropriate or offensive to some audiences” and widely decried as blatantly racist. The MLB commissioner even balked at an answer as to why they were playing so frequently, saying only that it’s not fair to Fox, the broadcaster, to “get into private conversations” about ad buys.
The commercials are working as intended. The group behind the campaign, Citizens for Sanity, has spent millions this cycle to shock voters into paying attention to its aggressive take on the election. The dark-money PAC has spent over $40 million in advertising to elect Republicans, including $3.2 million in new ads this week to boost Don Bolduc, the far-right U.S. Senate candidate in New Hampshire. It’s more than he’s spent this entire cycle.
The men behind the group are familiar names from the Trump administration and some of its most hard-line policies. Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s travel ban and a key player in the administration’s policy separating migrant children from their parents, serves on the executive board. Strategic consultant Ian Prior served as Jeff Sessions’s spokesman when he cracked down on immigration as attorney general. Other like-minded figures include a former official who tried to phase out DACA and another who fought to lower the U.S. cap on refugees.
Citizens for Sanity declined to speak about its 2022 ads, but in a Halloween appearance on Steve Bannon’s podcast, Prior explained its strategy with comments that were anodyne compared with the commercials. “Our primary mission is to restore common sense to America,” he said, going on to claim the World Series ads are just “trying to get to the point where people are actually having these conversations.” His calm demeanor wavered a little at the prospect of transgender students in public schools: “We’re talking about boys becoming girls and girls becoming boys.” Bannon and Prior did not discuss the allegations of Willie Horton–style racism, but Prior did say the group is using “footage that’s just out there.”
Prior twice repeated a line that seems key to understanding Citizens for Sanity’s approach: “This is really a long-term fight we’re looking at here.” Since Trump was voted out of office, he, Miller, and other former staffers have been working on keeping their agenda at the front of the national conversation by founding a closely linked network of advocacy groups on issues such as restricting immigration and limiting transgender acceptance in schools.
Miller is also the founder and president of America First Legal, which he has described as the right’s “long-awaited answer to the ACLU.” Aside from its legal work suing the Biden administration over its immigration policies, the organization has been buying ads with a tone that’s indiscernible from those of Citizens for Sanity. This midterm, AFL has spent $4 million on radio ads in Senate races in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio accusing the Biden administration of “pushing radical gender experiments on children.” If the groups’ messages seem similar, it may be because they share two more executives along with Miller. Federal Communications Commission records reviewed by Open Secrets show that John Zadrozny, who went after DACA, is a Citizens for Sanity board member and the AFL’s deputy director of investigations. Gene Hamilton, who tried to keep out refugees, is a vice-president at AFL and the treasurer at Citizens for Sanity.
America First Legal isn’t focused solely on immigration. Last year, it sued the superintendent of the Loudoun County school system in Virginia after parents opposed to transgender acceptance and critical race theory revolted at a school-board meeting. The parent leading the monthslong push was no stranger to the executives at America First Legal — it was Prior, the group’s senior adviser.
For several months ahead of the 2021 election, Prior, a resident of the wealthy suburban county, decried the school system’s acceptance of anti-racist education, elevating the issue until it became a sticking point in the 2021 governor’s race. In an appearance in Loudon County that June, Glenn Youngkin, then the Republican gubernatorial candidate and now the governor, said he was standing on “ground zero for the fight to return our schools to a curriculum that prepares students for the future.” Prior founded a PAC called Fight for Schools and appeared on Fox News playing the concerned parent. But most hosts on the network did not mention his Republican connections or his time in the Trump administration.
When Prior said Citizens for Sanity’s messaging is a “long-term fight we’re looking at here,” it’s this kind of effort he was referring to. Last year, he was able to make the idea of teachers using students’ preferred pronouns controversial to the point that it roiled the Virginia election. Proven as a hot-button issue, both Fight for Schools and Citizens for Sanity are hitting gender issues in classrooms as an example of liberal overreach:
In the interview with Bannon, Prior brushed off the extremity of the ads, saying Citizens for Sanity is trying to “raise awareness.” Bannon, who pioneered some of the same right-wing media tactics at Breitbart, was a little more straightforward about what makes Citizens for Sanity stand out. “Your ads are different in that you can’t look away,” he said. Prior smiled.