Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) was hammered from both sides of the aisle on Monday for a controversial ad he aired during the Super Bowl, which critics charge has racial overtones.
The ad begins with an Asian woman on a bicycle in what appears to be a rice paddy.
Speaking in broken English, the actress mockingly thanks Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowBiden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans Five ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Senate Democrats look to fix ugly polling numbers MORE (D-Mich.), whom Hoekstra is hoping to challenge in November.
“Thank you, Michigan Sen. Debbie ‘Spend-it-now,’ ” the woman says in accented English. “Debbie spend so much American money, you borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie Spend-it-now.”
The ad then cuts to Hoekstra. “I think this race for U.S. Senate is between Debbie ‘Spend-it-now’ and Pete ‘Spend-it-not.’ I’m Pete Spend-it-not Hoekstra, and I approve this message,” he says.
The ad, which reports say was filmed in California, never specifically mentions China, but it seems to play on worries about the billions the Chinese have loaned to America.
The commercial also directs viewers to debbiespenditnow
.com, which features Chinese characters, a bleached-out picture of Stabenow on a Chinese fan and a section titled “The Great Wall of Debt.” The website is paid for by Hoekstra’s campaign.
Asian-American groups, as well as Democrats and some Republicans, have criticized the ad.
“Pete Hoekstra Superbowl TV ad in MI Senate race really, really dumb. I mean really,” senior GOP strategist Mike Murphy tweeted.
Murphy has donated to one of Hoekstra’s primary opponents, according to reports.
“Stabenow has got to go,” wrote Michigan GOP consultant Nick De Leeuw on Facebook. “But shame on Pete Hoekstra for that appalling new advertisement. ... Racism and xenophobia aren’t any way to get things done.”
The Michigan chapter of the nonpartisan Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote said they were “deeply disappointed” by the ad.
Hoekstra said on a Monday morning conference call that the ad was not insensitive to Chinese Americans, and sought to blame the controversy on Democrats.
“The ad is only insensitive to Debbie Stabenow and her spending,” he said. “The Chinese are taking advantage of the opportunity and the door we opened for them. The ad doesn’t criticize the Chinese at all.”
When asked whether his campaign had discussed the possibility of the ad being viewed as racist, Hoekstra blamed Democrats for stoking the controversy.
“We were aware of the possibility that [Democrats would] raise the race issue,” he said. “If they can’t defend their record ... they will try to come up with some other issue that diverts the public from their failed record.”
Republican strategist John Weaver defended Hoekstra, saying the ad wasn’t racist.
“I don’t think the ad is racist by any means whatsoever. This is an important issue and they’re getting the point across,” Weaver said. “If the campaign had gone in a way that passed the sensitivity test you and I wouldn’t be talking about it, and it wouldn’t have gotten nearly the attention that it has.”
The ad, which cost $150,000, ran on Super Bowl Sunday in the Detroit market hours before game time and elsewhere during the game.
Hoekstra’s ad sought to replicate the success of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) 2010 ad, when he introduced himself as “one tough nerd.” But the ad’s attack on Stabenow’s voting record has been drowned out by the race-based controversy.
Other Republicans have sought to avoid discussing the ad. The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s (NRSC) daily email on Friday mentioned that the ad would be aired over the weekend, but its Monday email made no mention of it, despite the widespread attention the ad has drawn.
When asked whether it agreed with the ad, NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh pointed to the group’s longstanding policy of not getting involved in primaries — Hoekstra is competing with five other candidates for the GOP nomination — and instead attacked Stabenow.
“At a time when Michigan has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Sen. Stabenow’s failed record of bigger government, higher taxes and reckless spending has been, and will continue to be, a central issue in this campaign,” Walsh said in an email to The Hill.
Campaign strategist Fred Davis, who produced Hoekstra’s ad, has a long track record of garnering attention for his clients, not all of it positive. He produced Snyder’s ad, and some of his more memorable commercials include then-Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell’s (R) “I’m not a witch” ad and California Senate nominee Carly Fiorina’s (R) “demon sheep” spot.
Hoekstra is the front-runner in the GOP primary by a wide margin, but faces a well-funded opponent to his right. The ad paints him as a fiscally conservative option to Stabenow, who leads him in polls by a comfortable margin.
Michigan Democrats pushed back hard against the ad, pointing out that Hoekstra voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that bailed out Wall Street financial institutions, and worked as a lobbyist once he left Congress.
“Politicians like Hoekstra run shameful, deceitful ads like these when they cannot defend their own records. Hoekstra ran up our debt to countries like China by voting for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, and for trillions in unfunded giveaways to billionaires and special interests,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer.
“Debbie Stabenow has been one of our strongest leaders in cracking down on other countries’ illegal trade violations, while Hoekstra opposed new laws to fight the outsourcing of American jobs. Only a guy who works at lobbying firm like Pete Hoekstra could try to sell Michigan on an ad like this that runs 100 percent counter to the truth.”