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U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is framing the 2020 election as a battle between freedom and “anti-America, radical socialism” spearheaded by four women in Congress now in the Twitter crosshairs of President Donald Trump.

Daines, a Republican, drew criticism last week for backing Trump after the president incorrectly identified three dark-skinned U.S.-born female Democratic lawmakers as foreigners, advising they leave the country if they don't like how America was run. A fourth congresswoman targeted by Trump, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is a Somali-born Minnesota Democrat.

Daines told Lee Montana on Friday that Omar, and Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York; Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts; and Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan, pose a threat to democracy. The four have been critical of Trump’s handling of refugees at the Southern Border. Tlaib likened the squalor of detention centers where refugees are held to German concentration camps during World War II.

"What I think has sparked a lot of outrage in the middle of this debate has been an anti-American, radical socialist movement that we are seeing in the House," Daines said. "They call it the squad, the AOC plus 3, those radical socialist members that even last week a Democrat House member called socialist. They’re not Democrat, they’re socialist. And when we see what’s going on around our country, the antifa attack — this was a domestic terrorist attack, that I pointed out earlier in the week, on a facility in the state of Washington where an antifa member charged the facility and was threatening deadly force against members of law enforcement. And you’re hearing crickets, you’re not hearing any condemnation virtually coming from many members of Congress, including these radical members of the House. We saw in Aurora, Colorado a week ago today, there was an American flag flying, there was a back the blue flag flying, and some of these radicals took the American flag down and they raised the Mexican flag. They took the back the blue flag down. They spray painted ‘abolish ICE’ on it and raised it back up.”

'Pure politics'

When Jeremy Johnson, political science professor at Carroll College, heard the remarks by Daines and Trump, his first thought was that the 2020 election cycle had started and the remarks were pure politics.

“The 2020 election is in full swing, and it’s not about getting an agenda through Congress," Johnson said. "Trump believes that the sharpened division rhetoric benefited him in 2016, and he’s going to double down on this the next election. You see it in the tweets, you hear it at rallies.”

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Trump would like to turn the election into a choice, between freedom and socialism, rather than a referendum on his presidency, Johnson said. Doing so takes the attention off of Trump policies. The remarks are meant to be polarizing, Johnson said.

Campaigns cautioning about socialism don't always work, Johnson said, though it did from 1950 through 1952 when U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy launched unwarranted allegations and investigations into Americans suspected of communist infiltration. The talk works well when people feel threatened. Voters old enough to remember the socialism debate of the last century are most likely to be receptive, Johnson said.

Likely lost in the rhetoric is any chance of immigration reform in the next 15 months. A high-profile issue for Republican voters, immigration hasn’t been a top priority for non-GOP voters.

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In the 2018 elections, immigration was a priority issue for 21% of Montana voters, according to an Associated Press exit poll. A Montana State University post-election poll had 77% of Republicans strongly agreeing that immigration is a serious problem in the United States, but only 9% of Democrats thought the same. Among independent voters, 37% strongly agreed that immigration was a serious problem.

The election rhetoric raised concerns about whether comments like Trump’s would normalize xenophobic remarks. When the crowd at a Greenville, North Carolina, Trump rally began chanting “send her back” at the mention of Omar’s name, Trump said he didn’t like it, but a day later described the chanters as patriotic.

Monday, fliers circulated in Flathead County calling on people to “report all and any illegal aliens." The fliers were branded as being issued by “The Daily Stormer” a neo-Nazi website, said Rachel Carroll Rivas, director of the Montana Human Rights Network. The message aligned with the Trump administration’s announced ramp-up of fast-tracked deportations.

Deportations are rare in Montana, which hasn’t contributed any to the annual removal statistics of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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