What’s the cost of a two-second stammer in a recorded interview?
If you’re Kansas congressional candidate Sharice Davids, it’s $1.7 million.
That’s how much the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), has reserved in airtime in Kansas’s 3rd District. Davids, a former White House fellow making her first run for office, is now the subject of a CLF-backed ad saying she supports the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, based on a brief clip from an interview she gave to a left-wing politics podcast last month.
In the spot, which began running last week, a CLF narrator warns that “Davids wants to abolish ICE — the law enforcement agency that deports criminal illegal aliens,” making her “liberal on illegal immigration.” The evidence for that comes from an interview published on July 21 by Millennial Politics, in which host Jordan Valerie Allen presses Davids to clarify whether she, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic candidate for Congress from New York, would support scrapping the agency.
“And just to clarify, you do support abolishing ICE,” Allen says.
“I do, I would, I would,” says Davis.
But Davids now says that she does not support abolishing ICE at all, and that the CLF ad mangled her position by chopping up a couple of seconds of throat-clearing while leaving out her answer.
In the clip, “I would” is not the end of Davids’s sentence. The quote appears several minutes into a discussion of immigration that begins with a question of how Davids would “dismantle this white supremacist immigration system.” Davids responds in kind, talking about her experience as a Native American taught how the federal government had “institutionalized oppression.”
Allen then asks about “the efforts to abolish ICE,” asking whether Davids would defund ICE; the candidate says that “we have to get away from thinking that everyone coming to the United States is a threat,” and that “we need to have something that is reworked, that deals with immigration, that is not thinking in terms of policing.”
It’s at that point that Allen asks to clarify if Davids wants to abolish ICE; her full answer is “I do, I would, I would — well, you asked me about defunding, which is essentially the same thing, you know?”
Two weeks after that interview, Davids won her primary, defeating Brent Welder, a candidate backed by Ocasio-Cortez. The ICE issue did not play an issue in that race; Welder did not support abolition, and Ocasio-Cortez did not mention it at a pre-primary rally for him.
But according to Davids, she had never endorsed abolishing ICE and had, instead, stammered briefly while explaining the nuance in her position.
“Let me clear, I do not support abolishing ICE,” Davids told The Washington Post in an emailed statement. “I do support comprehensive immigration reform to fix our broken system. What I also believe — and what I was addressing — is that the practice of ripping families apart at the border is inconsistent with our core values as Americans and an ineffective deterrent to illegal immigration.”
There’s precedent for what Davids is claiming happened between the interview and the attack ad. During his brief 2015 presidential campaign, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) was tripped up when he answered a question about whether he would eliminate “birthright citizenship” by saying “yeah, to me it’s about enforcing the laws of our country.” Walker’s campaign, in vain, explained that the governor had a common verbal tic — he often said “yeah” or “sure” at the start of a sentence, where someone else might use a neutral word like “so” or “well.”
The problem in Davids’s case is that her “I would, I would” lived online and not rebutted for a month. In a tweeted response to The Post, Allen said that she came away from the interview believing that Davids would support abolishing ICE. The day after the interview posted, liberal policy analyst Sean McElwee, who is often credited with popularizing the “abolish ICE” slogan, tweeted that Allen had a “scoop,” and that Davids was the latest Democrat to call for abolition.
Reached over the weekend, McElwee said that Davids “pretty clearly says she supports abolishing ICE” in the tape. But after he tweeted, other reporters who had talked to Davids said that she’d previously stopped short on that question.
“I took a quick listen and didn’t see any reason that this wouldn’t be true,” McElwee said. “There are lots of Democrats who want to abolish ICE, and I want to promote their work. It doesn’t make a ton of sense for me to drag a candidate who doesn’t want to be an abolish ICE candidate into attacks they’re uncomfortable with.”
What confused reporters about the Millennial Politics interview was that Davids had always navigated around the “abolish” part of the policy. In a July 4 interview with The Post, when she was asked whether she would abolish ICE, Davids explained at length that she wanted to rethink the immigration system, which would include moving some of ICE’s law enforcement functions to other agencies.
“We need to see reforms,” she said. “We can say ‘abolish,’ but no matter what, it will be reformed. There are functions in there that are not part of the problem we’re trying to address. The root of the problem is that we have a system with policies geared toward specific people.”
Davids’s stumble put an exclamation point on the problem that swing-district Democrats have had with the “abolish ICE” slogan. It arose in early 2017 not out of the idea that there should be no immigration enforcement, but that ICE, under the Trump administration, was carrying out raids and deportations targeting people who did not have criminal records.
Several Democrats — more than have called for abolishing ICE — have taken a more nuanced position. In his primary race against Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) said, “Simply abolishing the agency does not take it out of the hands of Jeff Sessions in Washington,” while Ocasio-Cortez said that he was adding “more paperwork” to cover a “moral problem.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory pushed the “abolish” campaign into the media and political mainstream — and just as soon, Democrats in tough races explained why they were not on board with it. In several recent speeches, Ocasio-Cortez has not mentioned the abolition of ICE in the quick list of ideal Democratic priorities.
But in a friendly interview, weeks before her primary, Sharice Davids tried to swerve around the question. Republicans plan to make her six-word partial answer a weapon in the next few months.
“Sharice Davids is a typical politician who is willing to say and do anything to get elected,” said CLF communications director Courtney Alexander. “Let me be crystal clear: Sharice Davids has said she supports abolishing ICE, and we look forward to running several ads highlighting her position. End of discussion.”