Hunter, DeSantis, and several other Republican candidates followed their party leader’s playbook when it came to embracing divisive rhetoric, including what his critics call his racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. And that may have worked.
In some of the races where the GOP candidate stoked the most controversial aspects of Trumpism most strongly, voters got behind the Republican.
DeSantis made headlines the day after his primary win when he warned that Andrew Gillum, who many hoped would be Florida’s first black governor, would “monkey this up” if elected to the top seat in the state. After giving the college-educated Tallahassee mayor a backhanded compliment by calling him articulate, DeSantis attracted the scorn of liberals and the praise of white supremacists.
The most striking example of that was an Idaho-based white supremacist group’s racist robo-calls targeting Gillum, featuring a man impersonating the candidate speaking in a minstrel dialect while chimpanzee noises played in the background. DeSantis called that robo-call “disgusting."
Other statements from DeSantis about Rep.-elect Alexandria Occasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) were perceived as problematic, as was his acceptance of a donation from a donor who used the n-word in a tweet criticizing former president Barack Obama.
Comments near the end of the campaign from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has a long history of embracing white nationalism, were deemed so racist that members of his own party spoke out against them. He was photographed with a Confederate flag on his desk and has questioned the contributions to modern civilization of people who are not white.
He went so far as to say that neo-Nazi politics embraced in Europe would align with the Republican Party if advocated in the United States.
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, called King’s comments “completely inappropriate.”
Some polls showed King at risk of losing. But he won his race with more than 50 percent of the vote.
Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who was indicted on federal charges of wire fraud, also took a page out of the early Trump’s playbook. After Hunter aired ads accusing Ammar Campa-Najjar, his half-Arab, Christian opponent, of having the support of the Muslim Brotherhood “to infiltrate Congress,” the Atlantic’s McCay Coppins ran a piece calling Hunter’s “the most anti-Muslim campaign in the country.” A culture war in one school district might have helped secure him a victory. Coppins wrote:
Earlier this year, a group of parents sued the San Diego school district over an anti-bullying initiative aimed at creating “safe spaces” for Muslim students. Predictably, the lawsuit became a rallying point for right-wing culture warriors, who claimed the program — which included adding Muslim holidays to the calendar and teaching Islamic culture as part of the social-studies curriculum — was actually an effort to indoctrinate children with Islamist propaganda and make their schools “Sharia-compliant.”
Legal issues aside, voters in Hunter’s district got behind his campaign and are keeping him in Washington. He was leading with 54 percent of the vote as of Wednesday morning.
Not everyone who embraced Trumpism saw victories Tuesday night. One candidate who made headlines for his previous comments about women lost Tuesday despite doubling down when confronted about them. Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) once complained about a culture that no longer allowed him to call women “sluts.”
A CNN investigation found comments he made on his radio show in 2012 in which he asked: “Does a woman now have the right to behave — and I know there’s a double standard between the way men chase women and running around — you know, I’m not going to get there, but you know what I’m talking about. But it used to be that women were held to a little bit of a higher standard. We required modesty from women. Now, are we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut, but you can’t call her a slut?”
Lewis did not back away from the comments when asked about them, and eventually lost his race to Democrat Angie Craig.
Whenever a conservative candidate got in trouble for a discriminatory remark or idea, a Republican appeared on cable news to denounce the statement, attempting to convince viewers that there was no room in the GOP for discrimination.
But voters seemed to think differently, in part because most Americans who back the GOP at the polls don’t take their cues from pundits. They found a voice in Trump, who spent the final days of the midterm elections playing into the cultural anxieties of his base when it comes to immigration, reminding his supporters still uncomfortable with Obama’s “otherness” about the former president’s middle name, Hussein, and repeatedly dismissing Stacey Abrams, who hoped to become America’s first black woman governor, as unqualified.
When it comes to issues of diversity — particularly race, immigration and religion — some GOP candidates have figured that following Trump’s lead is the best path to victory.