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China Was an Issue in the US Midterms, Especially in Attack Ads

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Trans-Pacific View | Politics | East Asia

China Was an Issue in the US Midterms, Especially in Attack Ads

In hundred of campaign ads, China is portrayed as both a threat to American interests and a partner for corrupt elites in the United States.

China Was an Issue in the US Midterms, Especially in Attack Ads
Credit: Depositphotos

Foreign policy issues rarely warrant sustained attention in the United States’ midterm elections. The midterm campaigns are traditionally about domestic matters, and 2022 was no exception, as each party’s public outreach covered a wide range of bread-and-butter issues. Republican candidates stumped on the economy, crime, the border, and their opponents’ “radical agenda,” while Democrats rallied around abortion rights, gun safety, and the “threat to democracy” posed by “extreme MAGA Republicans.”

But a close look at campaign messaging in congressional and statewide races shows that some were willing to invoke China in very specific ways. The claim that China is the United States’ adversary and that Washington must stand up to Beijing has been fashionable in U.S. elections since 2016, and the 2022 midterms added a few new wrinkles to this pattern. As evidenced by the hundreds of campaign ads catalogued at the Ad Impact database, as well as on the social media channels of candidates, parties, and major PACs and SuperPACs, China is not only portrayed as a threat to American interests, but it also serves as a ready-made symbol for how corrupt, “globalist” elites in the U.S. have gotten rich while outsourcing American jobs.

The bipartisan nature of this messaging explains a lot about the political zeitgeist. First, China is one of the few major issues on which the two parties agree and on which the executive and legislative branches have cooperated. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have embraced a range of tough measures against Beijing, while Congress has passed bipartisan legislation restricting Chinese investment and access to American technology, blacklisting exports from some state-owned enterprises, reaffirming Taiwan-U.S. relations, and cracking down on foreign influence operations. Second, these policies seem to reflect the public will. From 2018 to 2022, Americans reporting an unfavorable view of China rose from 45 percent to 82 percent, and those naming China as America’s greatest enemy increased from 11 percent to 49 percent. This wariness shows no signs of abating.

In the 2022 midterms, messaging on China followed a few main themes. Some campaigns stressed the necessity of “decoupling” from China in order to strengthen American industry, as when the House Majority PAC proclaimed Democrats’ success in boosting American manufacturing, “taking on China, [and] fixing supply chains to lower costs.” House candidate Frank Mrvan (D-IN) argued that sound industrial policy requires “cutting our dependence on China.” Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA) noted the hazards of relying on foreign silicon chip supply chains and promised to boost investment in U.S. tech companies “so Georgia workers aren’t forced to rely on countries like China.”

However, candidates most often invoked China in attack ads, especially to charge their opponents with getting rich off Chinese money while shipping American jobs overseas – a theme that (perhaps justifiably) presumes popular resentment of elites’ venality and indifference to the plight of American workers. A Democratic ad in Iowa’s 3rd House District cited a case of Chinese espionage and declared that such theft is now happening “in broad daylight through campaign cash to politicians.” The ad pointed to a GOP candidate who took money from a Chinese state-owned business, which in turn “got a million dollars in tax credits, paid for by you.”

A Democratic ad in Pennsylvania’s 7th House District similarly asserted that a GOP candidate “took over $5 million from taxpayers that was meant to save American jobs and opened a new plant in China after closing a factory here.”

In the hotly contested Ohio Senate race, Democrat Tim Ryan called his opponent J.D. Vance “a fraud” who “invested in an app selling our farmland to Chinese citizens” and got rich “trashing Ohioans while investing in companies that send jobs to China.”

This brand of anti-elitism is rarely subtle, as in one Democratic ad in New York’s 22nd House District, which mentioned that the Republican “Wall Street banker” candidate owns a truffle farm. After implying that truffles are a foreign oddity to blue-collar Americans, a voiceover proclaimed, “It’s not surprising that his family invested in a company that shipped our jobs to China” and that “he did business with a company tied to the Chinese government.”

Some of these messages exposed intra-party power struggles. Within the GOP, a “tough on China” posture often served to align a candidate with the working-class populism of the party’s Trump wing. In the Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial primary, a Tim Michels ad called opponent Rebecca Kleefisch “the pro-China, pro-amnesty, anti-Trump politician” and an “insider” who “went to China to sell out Wisconsin workers.” In the Georgia GOP primary, one ad declared that “millionaire David Perdue got rich sending jobs to China.” (And in case anyone missed the point, a Trump voiceover drove it home: “We have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us.”) One PAC ad even pronounced Arizona Senate primary candidate Jim Lamon to be “morally bankrupt” and “China’s senator” because while “Uyghurs are brutalized in communist camps,” Lamon’s business “partnered with companies exploiting Uyghur labor.”

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, the top two Republicans accused each other of weakness on China. Dave McCormick showed a series of voters (or actors) testifying that Mehmet Oz is “not a conservative,” is “totally wrong on guns,” and is “pro-China.” Oz’s response proclaimed, “First China sent us COVID. Then David McCormick’s hedge fund gave Chinese companies billions.” Amid images of Xi Jinping and COVID lockdowns, the ad concluded, “We got sick, China got investments, and David McCormick got rich.”

On the Democratic side, a few candidates invoked China to distance themselves from President Joe Biden or the party’s progressive wing. An ad for Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) contended that “Joe Biden’s letting Ohio solar manufacturers be undercut by China,” but Kaptur “doesn’t work for Joe Biden, she works for you.”

Another common premise in midterm attack ads was that weak candidates were being “played by China.” One PAC ad employed a Chinese flag-themed chessboard to underscore that Wisconsin Republican Rebecca Kleefisch is a “pawn” of China – “easy to co-opt, too weak to lead.” A voiceover insisted that Kleefisch has been “getting played” and “used by China” ever since she returned from a Communist Party junket “spouting Chinese propaganda.”

An ad in the North Carolina Senate race declared that “China made a fool of [Republican candidate] Pat McCrory,” as he awarded millions in taxpayer subsidies “to a company owned by the Chinese Communist Party” and “used slush funds to subsidize China’s communist government, the government that’s been stealing our technology and waging economic war against America.”

A Democratic PAC in the Wisconsin Senate race even blamed China for America’s high inflation, asserting that prices have risen “because America is too dependent on China.” The ad implores GOP Senator Ron Johnson to “stop making it easier on China and tougher on us.”

Did this messaging make any difference in the midterms? There is little proof that political ads can tilt an election. However, campaign symbols certainly offer some clues to the political culture of the day. Considering the breadth and depth of the bipartisan Washington consensus on China, it seems safe to assume that congressional and presidential candidates will revive many of these themes in 2024.