Republican candidates appear to be coalescing around a central line of attack for the midterm elections, describing their Democratic opponents as protesters at odds with American patriotism.
The strategy represents the newest front in a culture war deepened by President Trump, who has made identity a hallmark of his politics by using racially charged language and wading into issues including transgender service members and even the phrase “Merry Christmas.”
The latest evidence that Republicans were choosing such battles over talk of taxes and the economy came Tuesday in Arizona’s Republican primary for Senate, where establishment candidate Martha McSally, a congresswoman, prevailed over two hard-liners and immediately sharpened her knives in preparation for November. She will face off against Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who is bisexual and got her start in politics as a Green Party activist working on Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign. She also practiced law and worked as a social worker.
The race, McSally told supporters, will be a choice “between a patriot and a protester,” suggesting that the two were at odds. Earlier Tuesday, she spelled out the distinction in a video posted by an NBC correspondent.
“We’re going to spend the next 70 days making sure people see the contrast between a protester or a patriot,” said the former Air Force fighter pilot. She called Sinema a “chameleon who I’m running against on the left, who’s a Hollywood makeover.”
“She called herself a proud Prada socialist,” McSally said. “She was protesting our troops in a pink tutu.”
The comments show McSally attempting to revive a 2006 interview that Sinema gave to a now-defunct fashion magazine, 944, in which the creative dresser, who said she owns more than 100 pairs of shoes, described herself as “a Prada socialist.” Sinema has dismissed the remark as a joke. The “pink tutu” charge was laid out in a TV ad this month that includes a photograph of Sinema speaking into a microphone and wearing a pink outfit, according to footage posted by Politico.
“While we were in harm’s way in uniform, Kyrsten Sinema was protesting us in a pink tutu and denigrating our service,” McSally said.
According to The Hill, Sinema helped organize the Arizona Alliance for Peaceful Justice, a group opposing military action as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Among the values of the group, Sinema wrote in 2002, was “world disarmament.”
As an elected official, Sinema has emphasized her support for the military. “My older brother is a retired Marine and my younger brother is on active duty in the Navy,” she wrote in the Arizona Republic in 2014. The newspaper deemed “somewhat true, somewhat false” her statement that she had “put military families and veterans’ issues at the forefront.”
Addressing supporters Tuesday, Sinema said, “We need to treat these next 10 weeks like a sprint,” according to an ABC affiliate in Phoenix. “We’re going to run as fast as we can, as hard as we can.”
The race could help determine which party has control of the Senate come next year.
McSally’s rhetoric echoes the attacks lobbed in recent days by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas against his Democratic challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
Cruz released an ad this week knocking remarks by O’Rourke in which he said there was “nothing more American” than peacefully protesting against racial injustice. In a town hall — a clip of which has gone viral — the congressman responded to a question from an audience member by defending NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence. The man who posed the question said he found the practice “incredibly frustrating.”
O’Rourke, who began by thanking veterans in the audience, described the NFL protests as “a really tough issue” on which “reasonable people can disagree.” He explained his conclusion by referring to nonviolent efforts led by Martin Luther King Jr. to secure civil rights and hailed those who died “for the crime of trying to be a man, trying to be a woman in this country.”
“Peaceful, nonviolent protests, including taking a knee at a football game,” O’Rourke said, were intended “to point out that black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement without accountability and without justice.”
The Cruz ad set O’Rourke’s remarks against images of service members and asked, “Do Texans agree?” In the ad, a Vietnam War veteran who lost his legs when he stepped on a land mine answers: “I gave two legs to this country. I’m not able to stand. But I sure expect you to stand for me when that national anthem is being played.”
A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found in May that 53 percent of Americans believe it’s never appropriate to kneel during the anthem. In July, the NFL placed on hold a policy that was initially announced in May that would have fined teams for protests by their players.
Trump has led the way in highlighting hot-button identity issues, even when purportedly addressing other topics. He has brought the culture wars to campaign stops from Tennessee to Ohio, Florida to Pennsylvania. Perhaps the most notable illustration of his approach came in April, when the president traveled to West Virginia, where Republicans are trying to unseat vulnerable Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III, to talk about his new tax law but decided that topic was “boring.”
“This was going to be my remarks,” he said, referring to a script, which he tossed into the air. “That would’ve been a little boring, a little boring. Now I’m reading off the first paragraph, I said this is boring. Come on. We have to say, tell it like it is.”
He proceeded to decry what he described as unchecked immigration from Central America, and said without evidence that women on the perilous journey were being “raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before.”
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