The arrest of an undocumented Mexican immigrant in the killing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts seemed tailor-made for Republican campaigning in the midterms.
On Aug. 21, more than a month after the 20-year-old disappeared during an evening jog near rural Brooklyn, Iowa, the discovery of her body and the arrest of 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera came at almost the same time as the conviction of President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort on eight counts of tax-related crimes, and the guilty plea by Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, implicating the president in campaign-finance violations. As legal analysts and political pundits paraded onto cable news panels to discuss the potential ramifications for Trump’s presidency, Fox News had turned its attention to a story that was sure to pique the interest of its most powerful viewer. It’s unclear if that’s where Trump learned that authorities in Iowa had charged Rivera, a Mexican farmworker who’d reportedly been in the country illegally for about seven years, with Tibbetts’s slaying. But when he took the stage at a campaign rally in West Virginia that night, Trump made sure to bring up the news about “the illegal alien coming in very sadly from Mexico,” avoiding any mention of Manafort or Cohen.
“Should have never happened,” Trump told his supporters of Tibbetts’s death, seizing the newly reported tragedy as an opportunity to reiterate his regular calls for a crackdown on illegal immigration. “The immigration laws are such a disgrace. We’re getting it changed but we have to get more Republicans.”
The next day, Axios reported that executive editor Mike Allen had received a not-so-subtle email from former House speaker and Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich, encouraging the news site to cover the Tibbetts story.
“If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble,” Gingrich wrote. “If we can be blocked by Manafort-Cohen, etc., then GOP could lose [the House] badly.”
Political experts are divided over just how much weight Tibbetts’s death will carry in the 2018 midterms. While some believe the killing has the potential to influence certain races, others suggest the incident has lost some of its political salience, even in the state where it took place. Not only have Tibbetts’s parents explicitly rejected the politicization of their daughter’s death, but, skeptics argue, most voters aren’t likely to change their stance on an issue like immigration because of a single isolated incident.
Though politically serendipitous in its timing, Rivera’s arrest seemed to offer more to the GOP than a simple distraction from the previous day’s onslaught of bad news. It was a real-life example of the kind of illegal immigrant violence Trump had been denouncing since he rode down the escalator of his gilded Manhattan skyscraper and declared that Mexico was sending rapists and criminals over the Southern border to wreak havoc on innocent Americans. During the presidential campaign, Trump talked about Kate Steinle, the 32-year-old woman fatally shot in San Francisco, apparently accidentally, by Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a Mexican national who’d previously been deported from the U.S. five times. Despite a string of drug-related felony convictions, Zarate had evaded a sixth deportation following his 2015 release from jail on another drug charge, thanks to San Francisco’s sanctuary law, which blocked local police from turning immigrants over to federal immigration agents unless they’d been convicted of a violent felony. More than three years later, as they try to recapture Trump’s momentum in the 2018 midterms, Republicans are eager for a new face to represent the victims of a violent immigrant-crime epidemic that, according to allreliable data available, does not exist.