President Trump, immigration, health care and identity politics: Those are the themes on which competitive campaigns are running as both sides make their closing pitches to voters ahead of November’s midterm elections.

We took a close look at how those themes are manifesting themselves in campaign ads, those all-important political messaging vehicles. Here are a dozen ads that tell the story of these midterms.

1. Republicans hug Trump

If you’re a Republican running for office in a red-leaning state, the more Trump, the better. That’s especially true in Senate races, the most competitive of which are almost all happening in states Trump won in 2016 by a wide margin. The gold standard is Trump coming to your home state, doing a rally for you and saying nice things about you, then you simply clipping 30 seconds of it for a TV ad.

It’s one of the most effective ads Senate Republicans can run, said one Republican operative, who added that the candidates doing this notice an immediate bump in polls. “Trump has always been our best surrogate, and the rallies are game changers,” the operative said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

In Tennessee, GOP Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn made sure to air a clip of Trump calling her opponent “Phil whatever the hell his name is.” (Phil Bredesen is a former governor of the state.) In Missouri, Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley cut an ad in which the first thing you hear is Trump saying: “Josh is a star.”

2. Republicans side with Kavanaugh

Despite polls showing that a majority of Americans have negative views of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, some Senate Republican candidates are going all in on him by blaming Democrats for the sexual misconduct allegations that nearly derailed his nomination.

GOP Senate challenger Matt Rosendale in Montana is doing this most explicitly. Above, he ties Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s prominent role in raising questions about Trump’s controversial pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs to what happened to Kavanaugh in an ad called “the smear.”

3. Build. That. Wall.


Senate candidate Matt Rosendale in Montana. (Matt Rosendale for Senate)

Build the wall, build the wall, build the wall. Republican candidates can’t seem to say this enough. Even some Republicans running in swing states where this is a potentially risky move are all in on the wall.

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R), running for governor in Florida, took this to an extreme when he showed his toddler daughter how to build a wall with blocks.

This doesn’t work for every Republican, of course. In a competitive House race in Colorado, GOP Rep. Mike Coffman shares how he stopped a 4-year-old from getting deported.

But for those Republicans who do see a political benefit to cozying up to Trump, the maxim seems to be: The louder you can yell “build the wall,” the better. And that makes sense. Championing the president’s signature policy issue is the clearest and simplest way to show solidarity with the president.

4. Tough women show it off

They curse. They shoot at the Taliban after getting shot down from helicopters. They sue the military, and they pioneer combat roles for women. Veterans flexing their muscles is nothing new in politics, but these women are busting gender norms to do it.

Republican Rep. Martha McSally’s ad announcing her Senate run in Arizona shows off her fighter-pilot creds (she is the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat) and her cursing.

“I’m a fighter pilot, and I talk like one,” McSally says in an ad that Republican operatives signaled as one of their favorites of the campaign. “That’s why I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done.”


Martha McSally for Senate (Martha McSally for Senate)

In Texas, Democrat MJ Hegar has one of the most effective attack ads you will see in 2018. She served three tours in Afghanistan and tells her story of lobbying Congress and the Obama administration to let women serve in combat roles. One of those congressmen who shut the door on her, she claims, is Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.). She’s challenging him now.

5. Democrats suddenly want to talk about health care

After avoiding talking about health care for several election cycles, Democrats can’t stop talking about it in 2018. As Obamacare got more popular the more Republicans tried to undo it, House Democratic challengers started running ads framing their Republican opponents as the enemy of preexisting conditions, of low prescription prices.

Democratic operatives describe this health-care-focused ad against Rep. John Faso (R-N.Y.) as “devastating.” It shows him hugging a woman who says she has a brain tumor and promising her coverage, then flashes to his vote for the House bill undoing Obamacare.

In Illinois, Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan grabbed a photo of Rep. Rodney Davis (R) smiling at a Rose Garden news conference where Republicans celebrated passing the House bill.


Betsy Dirksen Londrigan for Illinois's 13th Congressional District. (Betsy Dirksen Londrigan for Illinois 13th)

And perhaps the buzziest ad of 2018 comes from Democrat Randy Bryce, who is running in Wisconsin for retiring House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s seat. It’s an emotional ad that starts off with his mother talking about how much she relies on health insurance for her multiple sclerosis and casts Bryce as a man of the people.

6. Republicans want to talk about race and gender

“I abhor identity politics,” Ryan, the House speaker, told reporters recently. “I don’t think identity politics should be played by anybody at any time.” But in 2018, Republicans are engaging in identity politics in a big way.

One of the most controversial ads of 2018 is an attack ad targeting Democrat Antonio Delgado, who is running for Congress in New York’s 19th District. It shows him dressed in a hoodie and flashes rap lyrics from his 2007 album. Delgado is a Rhodes scholar and lawyer with a Harvard degree.

7. Just plain nasty

Remember Bryce, the candidate running for Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin? Well, a Republican super PAC tracked down his police officer brother and had him film an ad against his own brother.

In it, James Bryce highlights his brother’s arrest record and a tweet Randy Bryce shared of a story titled “When police become the terrorists.”

"I don’t think people want to be represented by someone who’s shown contempt for those in law enforcement,” James Bryce says to the camera, unblinking. (The boys' mom says she wants the ad taken down.)

And SIX siblings of Rep Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) agreed to film an ad telling voters in Arizona not to vote for their controversial brother.

“You can’t pick your family,” Gosar said in response. ... “To the six angry Democrat Gosars — see you at Mom and Dad’s house!