In GOP ads, women fill bad-guy role

Tak­ing Trump cue, at­tacks frame ‘the squad’ as vil­lains

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Lisa Mas­caro

WASHINGTON — Move over, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sioCortez and “the squad” of fresh­men women of color are emerg­ing as new stars of Repub­li­can at­tacks against Democrats run­ning for Congress.

The tone is be­ing set from the top as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump bashes the four squad mem­bers with a strat­egy Repub­li­cans are quick to mimic, mod­eled on his own rise to the White House. Trump set a new stan­dard in 2016, mak­ing some Repub­li­cans un­easy, by taunt­ing ri­vals and brand­ing them with ex­ag­ger­ated nick­names in­tended to make them un­electable.

The GOP is em­brac­ing the tac­tic for 2020.

A first test will be a Sept. 10 spe­cial elec­tion in North Carolina, the state where Trump sparked the “send her back!” rally chant. The Trump-en­dorsed Repub­li­can, Dan Bishop, is por­tray­ing Ma­rine vet­eran Dan McCready and other Democrats as “cra­zies,” “clowns” and “so­cial­ist.”

“These crazy lib­eral clowns ... They’re not funny,” Bishop says in one ad that fea­tures im­ages of McCready, Pelosi and squad mem­bers to a sound­track of cir­cus mu­sic. “They’re down­right scary.”

Yet it re­mains to be seen whether this line of at­tack will work. For years, Repub­li­cans re­lied on at­tacks de­pict­ing Pelosi, the House speaker, as an out-of-touch San Fran­cisco lib­eral as they tried to snap GOP vot­ers to at­ten­tion.

But sin­gling out a new gen­er­a­tion of fe­male lead­ers is risky when Repub­li­cans are try­ing to pre­vent an ex­o­dus of sub­ur­ban women and in­de­pen­dent vot­ers.

The at­tacks are es­pe­cially fraught be­cause two of the women — Reps. Rashida Tlaib, DMich., and Il­han Omar, D-Minn. — are the first Mus­lim women elected to Congress, part of the his­toric fresh­man class with more women and mi­nori­ties than ever. The other two mem­bers of the self-de­scribed squad are Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and Rep. Ayanna Press­ley, DMass.

Michael Faun­troy, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at Howard Univer­sity, said Repub­li­cans down the bal­lot are tak­ing Trump’s cue with thinly veiled at­tacks on race and re­li­gion.

“Beat­ing up on Pelosi isn’t such a big deal be­cause she’s been around for­ever,” he said. “This ‘squad’ is per­ceived as a new threat and it’s this per­fect col­lec­tion of re­li­gion, race and pol­icy po­si­tion, all tied up in a neat lit­tle bow, if you will.”

It’s not just the North Carolina elec­tion where Repub­li­can can­di­dates are run­ning against the squad.

A Min­nesota Repub­li­can warned vot­ers of the squad and its home-state rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Omar, who wears a head­scarf, as he launched his cam­paign to un­seat Demo­cratic Sen. Tina Smith. And Repub­li­can strate­gists are try­ing to link other Democrats to the group’s lib­eral agenda by brand­ing it “so­cial­ist,” even if the can­di­dates have not signed on to the Green New Deal, Medi­care for All and other lib­eral pro­pos­als fa­vored by the four fresh­men law­mak­ers.

“We will make ev­ery Demo­crat own de facto Speaker Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez’s so­cial­ist agenda,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee. “And if a mem­ber isn’t for it, what are they do­ing to stop it?”

Repub­li­can strate­gists be­lieve the squad, like Pelosi, will pro­vide a pow­er­ful fo­cal point for at­tacks. Ocasio-Cortez is a rec­og­niz­able name among vot­ers — higher than some pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates — and not all fa­vor­able, they say. The Con­gres­sional Lead­er­ship Fund, the main out­side group aligned with House Repub­li­cans, is call­ing out fresh­men Demo­cratic law­mak­ers they say are “as woke” as Oca­sioCortez and “palling around” with the New Yorker widely known as AOC. The NRCC rou­tinely as­signs Demo­cratic can­di­dates Trump-style nick­names.

What Repub­li­cans don’t want is a re­peat of the Trump rally in Greenville, North Caron­lina in July, when the pres­i­dent en­dorsed Bishop on stage but also went af­ter the women one by one, spark­ing chants of “send her back!” when he got to Omar, who is a So­mali refugee. All are U.S. cit­i­zens.

“It’s no longer a dog whis­tle, it’s a bull­horn,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Jus­tice Democrats, a group back­ing the squad.

Repub­li­cans ac­knowl­edge the risk of tak­ing the rhetoric too far and are try­ing to keep the barbs fo­cused on pol­icy rather than per­son­al­i­ties. They tar­get their lib­eral poli­cies and crit­i­cism of Is­rael, par­tic­u­larly its treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans.

One Repub­li­can strate­gist said the GOP only ex­pects to use the mes­sage in about 13 key House dis­tricts where Trump easily won in 2016, rather than more com­pet­i­tive sub­ur­ban dis­tricts that have been trending to­ward Democrats in re­cent elec­tions. The strate­gist was granted anonymity to dis­cuss the in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions.

Ann Gib­son, 74-year-old re­tiree from sub­ur­ban Char­lotte, said Trump’s fo­cus on the first-year Demo­cratic women is part of a larger ten­dency of con­stantly look­ing for enemies.

“I think he’s a sex­ist and racist and I think he needs some­body to rage at and that’s this squad,” said Gib­son, a reg­is­tered Demo­crat who voted early for McCready. “Ev­ery­thing that he stands for is just, I’m tired. I’m tired of him, I’m tired of the stuff that goes on ev­ery day . ... Just the whole thing.”

But Repub­li­can Denise Shirhall, 65, said she didn’t like the squad’s di­rect­ness or the Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment’s tol­er­ance of the women, which she at­trib­uted to their be­ing mem­bers of mi­nor­ity groups — “be­cause they’re Mus­lim, this and that.”

“They’re run­ning amok,” Shirhall said out­side an early vot­ing site in the Char­lotte sub­urb of Matthews. “If they were my kids, I’d pop their hand.”

Both par­ties now say the North Carolina con­test is a toss-up. In a district Trump swept in 2016, the tight race is rais­ing ques­tions about whether the at­tacks will res­onate dur­ing the 2020 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Trump, who’s mak­ing a re­turn visit to North Carolina on the eve of the elec­tion, shows few signs of chang­ing course, tweet­ing that McCready “likes the ‘Squad’ more than North Carolina.”

Pelosi, who ap­pears with cameos in the GOP ads, fre­quently ex­presses pride at the more than 130,000 at­tack ads run against her in 2018. De­spite those ads, Democrats won con­trol of the House and she re­gained the speaker’s gavel af­ter six years of GOP rule.

Ocasio-Cortez ap­pears to be tak­ing a sim­i­lar ap­proach, find­ing hu­mor in the broad­sides against her.

“I love ev­ery­thing about this GOP at­tack ad,” she tweeted about one ad la­beled “shal­low thoughts” that shows her dis­cussing cli­mate change.

Repub­li­cans, she ribbed, are “pay­ing for ads that spread & ex­plain our pol­icy po­si­tions.”

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

Fresh­man Demo­cratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib, left, Il­han Omar, Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Press­ley are pic­tured.

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