WASHINGTON — The ad couldn’t sound more ominous. As darkened images of quiet suburban neighborhoods roll on the screen, a woman’s voice delivers a scary message: “On every street, in every neighborhood, around every corner, sex offenders are living among us.”
And then comes the kicker: U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey in a swing district, “tried to make it easier for predators to hide in the shadows,” the woman continues. “Malinowski worked as the top lobbyist for a radical group that opposed the National Sex Offender Registry.”
As attack ads go, this one — entitled “Shadow” and released by the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (NRCC) — would be considered extreme even by the usual standards of political mudslinging. There is no evidence that Malinowski, who before being elected to Congress in 2018 served for years as the Washington director of Human Rights Watch and later as assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, had ever done anything to protect sexual predators or lobbied against the sex offender registry.
But to some, the harsh attack ad is part of a nationwide “QAnon strategy” that the Republican campaign committee appears to be deploying to exploit the fears and paranoia fueled by the bizarre conspiracy cult convinced that the Democrats are working with “deep state” sex traffickers and pedophiles to sabotage Donald Trump’s presidency.
“That’s a clear bid for QAnon support,” said Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, who has written a book about antigovernment conspiracy theories. “This is a play for anybody who believes the Democrats are a den of pedophiles and child sex traffickers. It’s completely untethered from reality.”
The attack ad targeting Malinowski is not an isolated case. In districts around the country, the NRCC — the campaign arm of House Republicans — has been hitting similar themes, depicting Democratic candidates as secret supporters of sexual abusers of young children. In one Florida district, the group has hammered Democratic candidate Margaret Goods as a protector of “sex dolls.”
It has attacked Jon Hoadley, a gay Democratic congressional candidate in Michigan as a “pedo sex poet.” In Missouri, it has run ads attacking Democratic candidate Jill Schupp as a defender of letting “sex offenders on playgrounds.”
Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the NRCC, rejected the idea the attack ads are designed to appeal to QAnon followers. “Trying to excuse Democratic candidates’ decisions to lobby on behalf of sex offenders, blog about ‘4-year-old-girls in thongs’ and vote against legislation protecting children from sex offenders because of an online conspiracy theory is truly pathetic,” he emailed to Yahoo News when asked about the ads.
When recently pressed about GOP candidates who back QAnon, Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, chair of the NRCC, said: “We don't support any hate-driven conspiracy theories, no matter what the organization is.”
But the ads come at a time when QAnon — and its links to some in the GOP — is getting mounting attention. Its bizarre claims about Democrats and sex traffickers first burst into the spotlight in the aftermath of “Pizzagate,” the conspiracy theory that circulated widely in the fall of 2016 asserting that associates of Hillary Clinton were enslaving young children in the basement of a popular Washington pizza parlor.
Since then, QAnon has made inroads on the fringes of the Republican Party. One of its followers, Marjorie Taylor Greene, recently won a House GOP primary in Georgia — and was quickly hailed by President Trump as a “future Republican star.” (She was also invited to watch the president’s acceptance speech on the White House lawn.)
A recent Yahoo News podcast series, “Conspiracyland,” documented how QAnon followers have been inspired by Trump’s tweets, repeating and even embellishing widely debunked claims by the president that one of his media critics, MSNBC co-host Joe Scarborough, had murdered a woman 19 years ago.
For his part, Malinowski, who is locked in a tight race with New Jersey state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (son of the state’s former governor), sees the attack ad against him as a subtle effort to play on the fears fanned by QAnon without fully embracing the group. “There are elements of the Republican Party that are not willing to go full QAnon and say we believe Donald Trump is secretly working to root out a cabal of sex traffickers,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News. But he added, “They are trying to align their message with the paranoia that QAnon is promoting.”
It is, to be sure, far from clear how much traction the bizarre claims of QAnon have gotten with the general public. Still, it is a message that apparently is resonating even in Malinowski’s suburban New Jersey district.
Earlier this month, QAnon backers marched through Westfield, a town in the district, protesting human sex trafficking, a cause which the group’s leader, the president of the local volunteer rescue squad, linked to a “certain satanic element within our power structure” that the conspiracy cult was seeking to expose.
In another case, Qmap.pub, a popular QAnon website which reportedly had over 10 million visitors in July, was exposed as being run by one of Malinowski’s constituents who worked as an information security analyst for Citigroup.
But connecting Malinowski to the QAnon-fueled fears about sexual predators requires a considerable stretch. The NRCC ad cited as source material a story last month in the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, which reported that 14 years ago, Jennifer Daskal, then a Human Rights lobbyist and later a Justice Department lawyer, had written a letter opposing an omnibus crime bill then before Congress.
Among the objections Daskal raised — objections shared by other civil liberties groups at the time — were provisions that would allow the Justice Department to charge juveniles in adult courts, enhanced mandatory minimum sentences and requirements that those convicted of sexual crimes register in the sex offender registry for the rest of their lives, long after they had served their sentences, and that even low-level offenders guilty of misdemeanor charges register for 20 years.
The letter did not oppose maintaining the national sex offender registry, which had been created the year before and is run by the Justice Department. “Human Rights Watch fully supports holding accountable those who violate the rights of others,” wrote Daskal, who served as advocacy director for U.S. programs for the nonprofit group. “But commission of a crime, even a crime that involves sexual misconduct, should not be license to run roughshod over principles of fairness and proportionality.”
At the time, Daskal worked solely on domestic programs and Malinowski, while director of the Washington office where she worked, focused exclusively on foreign policy and national security issues, including allegations of torture by the Bush administration. Daskal said in an interview that Malinowski played no role in the drafting and approval of the letter.
Malinowski told Yahoo News he had nothing to do with it.“I didn’t work on it. I didn’t sign off on the letter,” he said. “It was not within the scope of what I did.”
But McAdams, the NRCC’s spokesman, is not backing down.
“Tom Malinowski lobbied to protect sexual predators,” he wrote in an email, “and no amount of conspiracy theories from him can change that reality.”
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