Democrat Antonio Delgado is a Rhodes Scholar and attorney with a Harvard Law degree running in one of the country’s most hotly contested congressional races.
But Republicans want to instill a different image in the minds of voters in New York’s 19th Congressional District. Their latest ad, released Wednesday, features grainy clips of Delgado, who is African American and made a 2007 rap album. His censored explicit lyrics dominate the ad, along with the album cover, which shows a glaring Delgado in a hoodie.
Raw tensions over race, gender and personal identity are shaping battleground contests from Upstate New York to the Deep South, reflecting the marked schism in the country during the Trump era and the increasingly stark demographic divide between the two political parties.
With just one primary day left, on Thursday, Democrats have set or essentially matched records for the number of female, black and LGBT nominees, a Washington Post analysis shows. Republicans’ diversity statistics have either remained static or declined in each category, leading to a heavily white, male slate of nominees.
Republicans are aggressively trying to cast Democratic candidates as scary, threatening figures with unfamiliar values. A super PAC linked to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has aired an ad in Ohio tenuously connecting a candidate of Tibetan and Indian descent to Libyan interests and asking if he is “selling out Americans.” In Kentucky, a GOP incumbent released an ad showing his female Democratic opponent declaring that she is a feminist.
Democrats are increasingly calling out the GOP, saying these are sexist, racist attacks that remind them of the divisive tactics that Donald Trump used as a candidate and has reprised as president. Even some Republicans are troubled by the tone.
“The difference between the past and the present is that you have a political actor like the president who makes it okay, who gives license to it, said Michael Steele, who was the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee. “If you don’t speak to that and call it out, it will germinate, it will become an infection and will create the kind of disease in our politics, which I think to some degree, we are already seeing.”
Republicans behind the attacks are making no apologies. They argue that they are informing voters about their rivals.
“The Democratic rejoinder is to cry racism when all I am saying is he should explain his words,” said Rep. John Faso, the Republican incumbent Delgado is trying to unseat in an Upstate New York district that is nearly 84 percent white. In an interview, Faso, who is white, rattled off some of Delgado’s explicit lyrics. “I think they would generally bother anyone that would hear them,” Faso said.
The ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee features clips from the album Delgado released, under the name AD the Voice. In his songs, Delgado addresses social and political issues and uses obscenities and a racial epithet.
“If Democrats are upset about Antonio Delgado’s own rap lyrics being used in ads, then they shouldn’t have nominated him,” said Jesse Hunt, an NRCC spokesman.
Pressed on whether the ad and others launched by Republican candidates and groups are racist or sexist, a spokesman for Ryan did not directly respond. Instead, Jeremy Adler said the campaign should be about the economy and House GOP policies.
Asked what he thought of some of the ads on Thursday, Ryan emphasized that he cannot discuss ad strategy with super PACs. “I abhor identity politics,” he added. “I don’t think identity politics should be played by anybody at any time.” Ryan did not comment on specific ads.
Delgado has called the criticism of his album a “blatant attempt at distraction from the real issues.”
Race has also recently roiled the Florida gubernatorial contest. Democrat Andrew Gillum, the state’s first black major-party nominee for governor, said in an interview that he expected to face racially charged attacks — just not on Day One.
The morning after the primary, GOP nominee Ron DeSantis, who is white, used a phrase many African Americans have found offensive, suggesting on Fox News that electing Gillum and his liberal policies would “monkey this up” at a time when Florida is on the right track under conservative control.
Gillum spoke to his wife that evening to brace her for how ugly the contest might get. “Hold on, because God knows, you know, what depths this may go to,” he recalled saying.
DeSantis’s campaign spokesman, Stephen Lawson, said it was “absurd” to characterize the remark as anything other than a policy comment. One of his donors, Dan Eberhart, said DeSantis “certainly tripped” with “his inartful comment” and will “have to avoid those kind of gaffes in the future.”
Gillum is one of two black Democratic nominees for governor in the South, joining Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, who is also running against a Trump-backed candidate, Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
Democrats have at least 62 black nominees for the House, according to Collective PAC and a review of candidates by The Post. The number is on par with the records set in recent years, as documented by researcher David Bositis. Republicans have identified 10 black GOP House nominees, which is down from recent years and from as many as two dozen in the 1990s.
Democrats have a record 20 LGBT nominees for the House and Senate, according to an analysis by the LGBTQ Victory Fund; Republicans have none after fielding a handful in recent years.
The sharpest change in candidate diversity has been among Democratic women. Democrats have nominated 182 women for the House this year, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, already cresting 40 percent of all House districts and setting a record that shatters the old mark of 120 nominees in 2016 by more than half.
Republicans have 52 women, which is in line with recent elections. But the GOP’s share of all female candidates — 22 percent — is the lowest it has been in at least 40 years. Democrats have also set a record of 15 female nominees for the Senate and 12 in gubernatorial races. Republicans have fewer than half in each case.
“I think this administration and the president and his divisive policies are a great motivator,” said Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), recruitment vice chair for the House Democratic campaign arm. “I think that many of the women candidates we have running started with the Women’s March and ended up marching to their local town halls to register as candidates.”
In Kentucky, Democratic nominee Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot, would be the first woman to represent the Lexington-based 6th Congressional District if she unseats Republican Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr. She is contending with a barrage of negative ads, including one from Barr that shows her saying, “Hell yeah, I’m a feminist.”
Another ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund shows her photo alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Hillary Clinton, depicting her with other powerful women.
“It is inherent sexism,” McGrath said. “But I’m not focused on that.”
“No. I’m the father of two daughters,” Barr said when asked for his response to McGrath’s claim. “Of course I believe in equal opportunity regardless of gender.” He also listed the women in senior positions in his congressional office.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a major super PAC for which Ryan has raised money but crafts strategy independent of him, has run some of the most controversial ads. In Ohio’s Cincinnati-based 1st Congressional District, the group released an ad aligning Democratic nominee Aftab Pureval with Libyan interests, by way of the law firm that employed him.
Ominous music plays and dark images of plane wreckage and ex-Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi flash on-screen. “Aftab Pureval can’t be trusted,” the narrator says. The ad received four Pinocchios from The Post’s Fact Checker.
“I leave it to other people to ascribe motives,” Pureval said of the strategy behind the ad. Later, Pureval, who is of Tibetan and Indian descent, issued a statement from a campaign aide calling on his opponent, Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, to condemn what he says are racist attacks in the spot. “Our campaign had nothing to do with the ad, but we also see nothing in the ad that isn’t factual,” said Cody Rizzuto, a Chabot campaign spokesman.
In a statement, CLF communications director Courtney Alexander defended the ads: “It’s flattering to see how stressed Democratic candidates are from our ads as we educate voters about their extreme, liberal records.”
As the focus in the GOP has increasingly shifted to turning out conservative base voters, many of whom are loyal to Trump, the party that once made diversity a goal, most recently after the 2012 election, has fallen behind on that measure.
In addition to the GOP’s share of female nominees falling to at least a 40-year low, its share of black nominees is the lowest in at least 20 years, at less than 1 in 6 (14.5 percent); and its share of LGBT nominees is also lower than in recent election cycles (15 percent).
As recently as 2010, the GOP had 34 percent of female nominees and 25 percent of all black nominees. Republicans had about twice as many black nominees in 1994 and 2000 as they do today.