In one of the tightest swing districts in the country, one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents is running an unabashedly Trump-like campaign. Representative John Faso represents New York’s 19th district—a microcosm of the country, closely divided between densely populated, deep-blue towns and long expanses of rural red—and he isn’t talking about Trump’s tax cuts (House leaders let him vote against them) or focusing on any other issues of substance. He certainly isn’t talking about health care, after voting to strip coverage from almost 10 percent of his constituents. Instead, the centerpiece of his campaign has been claiming that MS-13 gangsters are coming to kill us all, and promising to address the contrived “issue” of low-level drug dealers being arrested with SNAP benefit cards in their pockets.
Faso didn’t face a primary challenger, so this isn’t about throwing red meat to the base to secure the nomination. What we’ve seen so far is likely to be his pitch for reelection. And it’s striking to see a politician who won this relatively purple district in 2016 by portraying himself as a moderate Republican, critical of Trump’s campaign, now choose a strategy that seems more appropriate for a deep-red district in the Bible Belt. (Faso’s popular predecessor, Chris Gibson, was arguably one of the last moderate Republicans in the House.)
This time out, Faso has chosen to run on classic appeals to white racial anxiety. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a right-wing, restrictionist group that doesn’t shy from trumpeting the ostensible dangers of MS-13, no member of the gang has ever been arrested in the district. Journalist Hannah Dreier, who has been covering MS-13 for years, reported that while MS-13 is notably brutal, it is small compared to other gangs, hasn’t grown in membership in recent years, and almost never targets “true outsiders—people who are not friends with any gang members or targets for recruitment.” While MS-13 is not the transnational powerhouse conservatives describe, Drier noted, “it is the US gang most strongly tied to Central America, which is where the majority of asylum-seeking teenagers come from.”
“In that way,” said Drier, “it’s the perfect focal point for Trump’s message of closed borders.”
The food-stamp claim may be more insidious, as it’s part of a larger Republican push to attack the program. According to the Albany Times-Union, “Rep. John Faso is doubling down on his push to place stricter work requirements on SNAP recipients” by suggesting that SNAP is plagued by widespread fraud. The reality, as noted by the US Department of Agriculture’s own watchdog, is that the program’s fraud rate was just 0.9 percent in 2016—up slightly from 0.6 percent the year before. And while the implication is that wealthy, Scarface-esque, drug kingpins are being busted with SNAP benefit cards, back in the 1990s a researcher at the University of Chicago found that low-level members of drug organizations—the kind of people who are most likely to be apprehended by police—were making $3.30 per hour, on average. It’s true that they probably don’t report their income, but that’s also the case with many other low-income workers in the gray economy who genuinely need nutritional support.