While polls show Sen. David Vitter with a comfortable lead over Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, Vitter’s campaign remains in attack mode.

This month, Vitter’s team released a TV ad claiming Melancon voted to award “actual welfare checks” to illegal immigrants. The political advertisement depicts “illegals” pouring through a border fence in celebratory fashion and blames Melancon for the scene.

On the surface, Vitter’s ad seems aimed squarely at his opponent –  Melancon makes outrageous votes benefitting illegal immigrants! However I believe the ad is cleverly designed to not only damage Melancon, but to energize select portions of Vitter’s conservative base in a number of ways.

Let’s review a few quick facts before we look at the ad’s structure and subtext. Illegal immigration has declined sharply since 2007, and unauthorized immigrants comprise a small percentage of Louisiana’s labor force. Also, none of Melancon’s votes “helped” illegal immigrants secure welfare benefits, to which they’re still not entitled. But Vitter is unconcerned with these facts because his ads are meant to inflame the issue, not illuminate it.

Monday, Fox 8 reported on the many local groups who condemned Vitter’s campaign commercial. For example, Sue Weishar of the Jesuit Social Research Institute described the ad as “incredibly dishonest,” saying

“Senator Vitter is a U.S. Senator that knows that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for any federal benefit programs, welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, social security, he knows that.”

While Vitter’s campaign ad obviously offended some, [UNO Political Scientist Ed] Chervenak believes it likely played well with some other voters in the state.  “There’s a certain sector of voters that this is really going to resonate with.”

I’ll discuss that “certain sector” soon. For now let’s just stipulate that Vitter’s ad lacks substance and hypes an issue that doesn’t directly threaten Louisiana.  Why would a seasoned pol like Vitter make such an odd “closing argument” to early voters? Perhaps – just a wild guess – Vitter thinks his ad triggers unconscious fears held by “certain sectors” of the electorate. Or, put differently: Vitter understands that clever race-baiting is effective politics.

Few if any local political analysts noted that Vitter’s campaign team re-edited the illegal immigration attack ad after it initially debuted. Both versions of the ad begin the same way. While Hispanic men are creeping through a cut border fence, they are greeted by an American welcome party, complete with cheering crowds and brass fanfare. Then the men are presented with welfare checks and driven away in limos. (Two minor quibbles here: I assume that undocumented immigrants would prefer cash; also, by only showing male “Mexicans” in the ad, Vitter can’t exploit the specter of terror and anchor babies.)

Halfway through the original ad, viewers are treated to a still photo of three hard-boiled muchachos glaring directly at them. Yikes! Nevada Republican senatorial hopeful Sharron Angle liked the scary picture so much, she used a black and white version of it in her attack ads against Sen. Harry Reid. However, Vitter’s crew took it a step further. For them, the Mexican trio’s countenance wasn’t sufficiently menacing, so they drained the original image of all color except for the men’s brown faces, thus highlighting their ethnicity. Then they inserted the doctored image into an ad that already blended the issues of welfare and illegal immigration. The ad concludes with the narrator saying “illegals keep coming, and coming, and coming…” It’s basically a 30-second nightmare for nativists.

Not long after the original ad began stirring controversy, Vitter’s team re-edited it by removing the doctored photo. But they didn’t remove it because it was patently offensive; they removed it because they got caught using an unauthorized image. (I’ll bet this isn’t the first time Vitter’s camp operated under the principle that “sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.”) Other than missing the “enhanced” photo of menacing border-crossers, the re-edited second ad was mostly like the first.

Responding to criticism of the ads, Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar said

“A huge part of our illegal immigration problem is the Mexican border.  That’s a fact, not a stereotype.  What most Louisianans find offensive are Charlie Melancon’s votes, highlighted in the ad, which are making that problem worse.”

Again, not that it matters to Vitter, but Melancon’s record on immigration is hawkish. An oft-cited group called Numbers USA gives him a “B” grade on “immigration reduction,” while Vitter’s fellow Republicans Rep. Bill Cassidy and Rep. Charles Boustany only receive grades in the “C” range. Rep. Joseph Cao –  the one-time “future of the Republican party” – receives a “D+” for his reasonable and humane stance on the issue.

Huck at Huck Upchuck blog wondered why Cao didn’t stand with others who openly criticized Vitter’s ad.  When called for comment, Cao spokesman Devin Johnson said the congressman is focused on his own campaign, and is unconcerned with Vitter’s campaign tactics. Johnson added that, like Melancon, Cao is having difficulty getting his opponent to agree to one-on-one debates.

While I appreciate the delicate balance Cao maintains between district and party, I’m disappointed in his silence. Cao is an immigrant from Vietnam who has done good work in impoverished Mexican townships. He is uniquely qualified to lend thoughtful perspective to the immigration issue. Moreover, Cao shouldn’t ignore politicians when they race-bait. No one should. Cao should join the groups that forcefully condemned the ad. Perhaps doing so might help him win the votes he needs for re-election.

Over the years, whenever I’ve implied that racism is embedded in the illegal immigration issue, many have quickly corrected me: “Mark, this is purely about the rule of law, national security, and American jobs. Race has nothing to do with it.”

Well, if that’s true, then why aren’t illegal immigration reductionists loudly condemning Vitter’s race-baiting ad? If they are sensitive to charges of racism, why would they tolerate Vitter poisoning their important issue with an ad that emphasizes skin color? Reductionists know their cause is ill-served by Vitter’s crass tactics, but they’ve been overwhelmingly silent.

I suppose it’s possible that, like Sharron Angle, immigration reductionists are so “colorblind” that they are unable to see the racial connotations in Vitter’s ad. Perhaps the men coming through the fence are really Asians crossing the Canadian border. It’s plausible! Who can tell, really?

But even if reductionists can’t discern any racial subtext, they still have good reason to criticize the piece. The fact is, Vitter made a simplistic, misleading spot about illegal immigration. He trivialized a complex issue he purports to care about, one which many Tea Partiers, Libertarians, and Conservatives in Louisiana rate as a top concern. That alone should merit a firm “tsk, tsk.”

So I’d love for conservatives who are passionate about the illegal immigration debate to either condemn Vitter out for injecting race into the debate, or at least scold him for demeaning their issue with a dishonest, cartoonish ad.

Neither of those things will likely happen, though.

Here’s what I think will happen: Vitter’s clever, race-baiting ad will continue to stoke fears about minorities and foreigners (on welfare!). The reductionist right won’t call him out, and the “certain sector” to whom Vitter is appealing will dismiss any criticisms of the ad from liberals or minorities. “For them, it’s always about racism,” they’ll say. Vitter will escape any negative political fallout.

That’s why the ad is so effective, and works for Vitter on several levels.

1) Transferral of outrage. The ad associates illegal immigrants on welfare with Charlie Melancon, and hopes viewers will transfer their outrage from one to the other. Basic stuff.

2) Plausible deniability. “The ad is about Melancon’s votes. It’s just an unfortunate fact that the Mexican border is a problem. It’s never about race.” Right.

3) Scary but not too scary. Sure, images of thuggish “illegals” entering the country at night is enough to stoke unconscious fears in “certain sectors” of the populace. However, the ad’s dreamlike, over-the-top presentation softens the racial “baiting” enough so that many conservative viewers find the ad more humorous than offensive.

4) Enrages minority groups and the left. Always a bonus for Vitter, who has a singular panache for irritating others. But it works for him because some voters will vote for him purely because he’s pissing off the right people. After all, it’s the liberals who are handing out checks to illegals, right? I read it in the chain e-mail somewhere. Also, it helps Vitter that the Hispanic population in Louisiana is small enough so that he doesn’t need to worry about alienating them. (Yet.)

5) Shows extremists that Vitter understands them. This is related to 4, but in a deeper way. The ad’s extreme, over-the-top images actually resonates positively within an extreme subset of “a certain sector.” (I’m thinking this subset might include birthers, anti-christers, opponents of terror babies, desktop border monitoring addicts… and there’s one other group but I can’t quite remember.) Instead of feeling disgust for Melancon’s votes, these extremists react to the ad with admiration for Vitter, because he’s courageous enough to speak to their fears.

Nowadays, a lot of people’s fear switch has no “off” position. To them, an invasion of illegals from the south has already occurred. They’ve already incorporated that fear, among many others, into their worldview. So, to them, Vitter’s ad doesn’t trigger panic as much as it recognizes reality.  Vitter’s racially charged alarmism tells them that –  unlike liberals, minorities, the media, and academics – Vitter understands their concerns. For them, the value of the ad is not how it “speaks to” their fears, as much as how it simply recognizes them. They think, “Finally, a politician gets me! Vitter understands the takeover is in progress, and that the liberal enemy within is helping the illegals invade the country. That’s our illegal president’s plan, by the way. Give the illegals amnesty and then addict them to welfare benefits so they’ll vote to keep the Socialists in office.”

So, as bizarre as it seems, I believe Vitter’s seemingly “over-the-top” ad imagery actually demonstrates to some extremists that he’s much more ground in “reality” than other politicians.

It would be interesting if members of these extremist sectors were directly asked whether they liked the ad because they are racist. I bet they’d reply along the lines of: “Wait. No, no, no. We’re not racist, we’re just fed up. Times are tough and getting worse, and Vitter speaks honestly about important issues that other politicians ignore. He’ll stand up for taxpayers like us and against the illegals and welfare cheats. Re-electing Vitter sends a message to Washington that we’re not going to take it anymore.”


I suppose that explanation about the motivations of a “certain sector” is as true today as it was 20 years ago.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...