Candidate jolts District 22 race with ad saying China ‘poisoned our people’ with coronavirus

Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni and Republican Kathaleen Wall are vying for U.S. House Texas District 22. Social media

As the new coronavirus disrupts lives worldwide, a Houston-area congressional candidate has shifted her focus to targeting the country where the outbreak began: China.

In a TV ad that started airing Thursday, Republican Kathaleen Wall embraces President Donald Trump's description of the virus as the "Chinese virus," saying the country "poisoned our people" and must pay for it. A narrator goes on to denounce the country as a "criminal enterprise masquerading as a sovereign nation."

Democrats swiftly condemned the ad as racist and particularly out of step with the highly diverse 22nd District, where Wall is in a runoff for the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land. National Democrats are targeting the seat.

"Irresponsible, race-baiting comments like these from Kathaleen Wall are unacceptable and dangerous to TX-22’s large Asian American and Pacific Islander population, who are intimately aware of the FBI warning about the recent surge of hate crimes against their community," Democratic nominee Sri Preston Kulkarni said in a statement.

At the same time, the ad has drawn attention to another side of campaigning in the age of the coronavirus. As candidates across Texas look to help their communities fight the outbreak, Wall has been distributing campaign-branded hand sanitizer — and it bears the label "Made in China."

That seems to be odds with Wall's anti-China zeal in the ad, which says she will "cut off trade, aid and support to China" — and "fight to replace 'Made in China' with 'Made in America.'"

But Wall said in a statement it "just highlights the problem that we rely too much on Chinese imports for basic goods," a problem she promised to fix in Congress.

Wall's hand sanitizer effort comes as her runoff opponent, Troy Nehls, makes headlines for giving out free bottles of disinfectant solution, drive-through style, in his role as Fort Bend County sheriff. The sheriff's office said it is getting the disinfectant from a water technology company based in Fort Stockton that has an office in Sugar Land.

The pandemic politics are unfolding in a highly diverse district that national Democrats are hopeful they can flip in November. On Thursday morning, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Kulkarni, a former diplomat, to its Red to Blue program for top recruits, about a month after he scored an outright victory in his four-way primary. Kulkarni ran against Olson in 2018 and lost by 5 percentage points.

Wall, a prominent GOP activist-donor, is running for the 22nd District after an unsuccessful bid for the nearby 2nd District in 2018 where she narrowly missed a runoff despite self-funding over $6 million. She and Nehls will face one another in the July 14 runoff, which Gov. Greg Abbott moved from late May due to coronavirus concerns.

To be sure, the pandemic has not entirely paused politicking across Texas as Democrats and Republicans spar over the response to the virus at multiple levels of government. But Wall's ad marks a sharp escalation with her visceral focus on China.

The coronavirus outbreak started in Wuhan, China, late last year. While the country ultimately took drastic measures to contain the outbreak, it initially faced accusations that it downplayed the severity of the virus and spread misinformation about it.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the Chinese government has hidden the extent of the outbreak in the country, underreporting cases and deaths.

As the virus began spreading in the United States last month, Trump started referring to it as the "Chinese virus," raising concerns that such language fuels xenophobia against Asian-Americans. While Trump initially defended the label as "not racist at all," he has since backed off using it regularly.

Nearly 20% of the 22nd District population is Asian, according to census figures. Kulkarni said in his statement on Wall's ad that a "crisis like a pandemic isn’t a license to demagogue your neighbors -- just the opposite."

"TX-22 is one of America’s most diverse districts and it’s home to a robust Asian American community," DCCC spokesman Avery Jaffe said in a statement. "Naturally, extremist Kathaleen Wall is leading the charge to cut the most racist TV ad of 2020."

Wall doubled down on the ad's general message in a news release Thursday, saying China "knew about this virus and they lied about it." At the same time, she elaborated on the "criminal enterprise" reference.

"The Chinese are a proud and noble people, but they’ve been hijacked by a criminal enterprise masquerading as a sovereign nation – the Chinese Communist Party," Wall said in the news release, referring to the country's ruling political party.

Wall's campaign said the ad began airing Thursday on Fox News across the district and "will soon be on broadcast television" ahead of the July 14 runoff.

Wall previously sparked outrage in the runoff with a Facebook post extolling Texas’ decision to ban most abortions during the pandemic, classifying them as non-essential procedures that could reduce hospital capacity. Wall said the move “will save more lives this week than it takes!” Kulkarni also condemned that statement, calling it “tone-deaf,” and she defended the sentiment in an interview with Newsweek.