WASHINGTON — Latino advocates were shocked to learn Monday that Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes is running an under-the-radar campaign to paint herself as less interested in a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants than her opponent, Senator Mitch McConnell.
"I approve this message because I've never supported amnesty or benefits for illegal immigrants and I never will," Grimes says in a TV ad first uncovered by Vox. The ad attacks McConnell for voting in favor of a bipartisan immigration bill in 1986 that was the last time Washington provided a path to legality for undocumented workers.
The TV ad is, as Vox notes, "unlisted on YouTube, meaning it doesn't show up on Grimes' main YouTube page and isn't searchable — minimizing the likelihood that out-of-state supporters will see it."
The subterfuge did not sit well with Latino and immigrant advocates, most of whom are supporting Democrats like Grimes against the GOP in November.
"It smacks of desperation," said Frank Sharry, president of the immigration advocacy group America's Voice. "It's a real eye-roller. First of all, when Democrats try to get to the right of Republicans on immigration it just doesn't work. Number two, she's attacking him for a vote in 1986? Really?"
Democrats and Latinos have struggled to connect on a number of fronts this cycle. Red state incumbents, facing an electorate likely to include fewer Democratic base voters than the 2012 cycle, successfully pressured President Obama to delay a long-promised set of executive actions on immigration. Obama's delay didn't help rally the Latino base to Democratic candidates in tough races — but it did prompt a brushfire backlash against some Democrats.
Presente.org is a grassroots group targeting Democratic Senate incumbents who supported delaying the executive action delay by urging Latinos not to vote for them. Arturo Carmona, the group's executive director, told BuzzFeed News Grimes' put her in a new category of Democrats turning on the Latino base.
"Alison Ludergan Grimes is trying to play the anti-immigrant card. She's gotten into the race to the bottom with Sen. McConnell on who can bash on immigrants the most, which is pretty much as low as you can get, frankly, when you look at McConnell," he said. "She's basically using the lives of millions of undocumented immigrants to advance her political aspirations. It's totally morally reprehensible. It represents the worst of the Democratic Party and an increasingly dying breed across the nation when you look at the Democratic Party in particular."
Grimes will avoid the fate of other red state Democrats targeted by Presente, however — Carmona said his group didn't have time or budget to launch a paid advertising campaign against her.
Unlike some states in the South, Kentucky's Latino population is relatively small. But Bluegrass State Latino activists are aware of Grimes' anti-"amnesty" ad and they say it's not going to help drive their voters to the polls.
"It definitely makes it extremely difficult to be excited about her campaign," said Erin Howard, a Kentucky-based former board member at United We Dream, a national DREAMer advocacy group. "Her campaign made a gross miscalculation with this ad because she won't gain much by throwing immigrants under the bus ... Her ad reinforces falsehoods about immigration and essentially aligns her with her opponent."
The Grimes campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.