Republicans are short on policy wins so they are trying to fire up Trump's base with extreme attack ads

Key Points
  • Republican midterm ads highlight Trump's failure to accomplish key goals from his 2016 campaign.
  • With Election Day just two weeks away, GOP candidates seek to alarm a conservative base disproportionately composed of older, less-educated whites in small towns and rural areas.
  • Across the country, they link Democrats with financial ruin, cultural disorder, and physical danger.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., arrives for the House Republican Conference meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. 
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

If you believed 2016 candidate Donald Trump, you could hardly have expected what you're hearing in 2018 campaigns – from fellow Republicans or the president himself.

Candidate Trump promised to build a border wall financed by Mexico and restore public safety. He promised to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a better, cheaper alternative. He promised to give middle-income Americans big tax-cuts and still reduce federal debt – even while rebuilding infrastructure and protecting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Trump's failure to do those things is emblazoned across the up-is-down messages from Republican candidates and the White House two weeks before Election Day.

There is no border wall. Underscoring that fact in capital letters, Trump now implores Mexico on Twitter to stop an immigration "onslaught" or "I will call up the U.S. military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!" He warned of "MANY CRIMINALS" on the way, blaming Democrats even though Republicans control Congress.

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There is no Obamacare replacement. And because voters fear the all-GOP government threatens one of its core innovations – guaranteed coverage for people with pre-existing conditions – Trump now claims to embrace it.

There is no infrastructure program. Middle-class tax cuts proved so small that many families barely notice them, while cash-rich corporations use theirs to reward affluent investors. Treasury data shows the deficit soaring.

The result: Trump brought his Cabinet before television cameras this week to demand 5 percent budget cuts while blaming out-of-power Democrats for over-spending. Since most voters believe the tax-cut helped corporations and the rich more than them, Republican candidates have sidelined it as a campaign theme.

Instead, Republican candidates echo Trump in seeking to alarm a conservative base disproportionately composed of older, less-educated whites in small towns and rural areas. Across the country, they link Democrats with financial ruin, cultural disorder, and physical danger.

Along with familiar foils like House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, those warnings often rely for emotional punch on images of non-whites. One GOP video highlights African-American Democrat Maxine Waters exhorting "an unhinged mob"; another uses violent street scenes from Venezuela to depict "the Democrats' socialist future."

In individual House races, those arguments can be difficult to make. Republicans try nevertheless, sometimes with flimsy evidence.

A screenshot from Rep. Duncan Hunter's attack ad against Democratic rival Ammar Campa-Najjar.
Source: Duncan D. Hunter For Congress

In Minnesota's 1st district, one Republican attack uses an image of African-American athlete Colin Kaepernick to rip Democrat Dan Feehan for backing protestors who kneel during the national anthem. "Real patriots stand," the ad declares – even though Feehan is a combat war veteran.

In Virginia's 7th district, another Republican ad links Democrat Abigail Spanberger to terrorism for her brief stint as a substitute English teacher at a Muslim school outside Washington. Spanberger later became a CIA counter-terror agent.

In New York's 19th district, a Republican ad shows African-American Democrat Antonio Delgado as a hoodie-wearing "big-city rapper," referring to his one decade-old album. Delgado is a Rhodes Scholar who graduated from Harvard Law School.

In Ohio's 1st district, a Republican ad accuses Aftab Pureval, an Ohio-born Democrat of Indian-Tibetan descent, of "selling out Americans" over his former law firm's lobbying related to Libya's 1988 attack on Pan Am Flight 103. Pureval had nothing to do with either the lobbying or the attack, which occurred when he was six years old.

In California's 50th district, another GOP ad calls Democratic candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar a "security risk" seeking to "infiltrate Congress." A San Diego-born Christian of Palestinian and Mexican-American descent, Campa-Najjar held a security clearance while working in the Obama White House.

Democrats remain favored to win the House anyway, in part because voters prefer their party's stance on health care. They face dimmer prospects in key Senate contests, where Republican candidates have joined in embracing an Obamacare achievement.

Like Trump, Dean Heller in Nevada, Kevin Cramer in North Dakota, and Martha McSally in Arizona insist they support pre-existing condition protections. All voted to repeal Obamacare, which created them.

Voters persuaded by those claims may be surprised again by 2020. Republican officials in 20 states, including 10 with competitive Senate races, have sued to eliminate all Obamacare regulations, including pre-existing condition protections. Trump's Justice Department is not defending the regulations.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledges the Senate may try to repeal Obamacare again next year. He says reducing "disturbing" budget deficits depends on curbing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits – despite Trump's pledge to protect them.