Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.
San Diego (CNN) -- Did you think the Republican Party had cornered the market on racism, nativism and ethnic demagoguery? If so, think again.
That is the GOP's modus operandi when it comes to the immigration issue. In an ugly trend that started in the Southwest in the 1990s but has now moved on to the South and Midwest, Republicans have learned to scare up votes by exploiting fear of changing demographics and the anxiety that many Americans have about an "invasion" of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border.
But this fear of foreigners has proven just effective enough that Democrats are now borrowing the GOP's playbook to advance their own causes.
Here's the difference: The voters who fear-mongering Democrats want to manipulate aren't so much afraid of what worries many conservatives -- that immigrants are supposedly lowering our standard of living, changing the country's complexion and weakening our sense of national identity. They're more afraid that foreign workers -- either here in the United States or even in their home countries -- are going to take their jobs, lower wages, or prove so attractive to companies and factories that jobs go overseas.
In other words, the fears aren't cultural; they're economic. But the way that Democrats exploit those fears is still the same: racism, nativism and ethnic demagoguery.
Which takes us to Kentucky, where a super PAC allied with Democrats recently took the low road in attacking its No. 1 Republican target: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In a juvenile and insulting display, Progress Kentucky recently resorted to anti-Chinese fear mongering to stir public resentment against McConnell. The goal might be to soften up the Republican a bit before his 2014 re-election campaign, where he could find himself running against Hollywood actress Ashley Judd.
Politics is about finding your opponent's soft spot and then pounding away at it like Joe Frazier. Progress Kentucky thinks that McConnell's soft spot is that he has -- gasp! -- an Asian-American wife, who happens to be former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
The group has been pounding away at this absurd idea that McConnell's wife's ethnic heritage (Chao was born in Taiwan and came to the United States with her family when she was 8 years old) has led him to support outsourcing jobs to -- wait for it, wait for it -- China.
In a February 14 tweet that was "re-tweeted" several times, Progress Kentucky said this about Chao:
"This woman has the ear of @mcconnellpress -- she's his #wife. May explain why your job moved to #China!"
Not really. You want an explanation for why your job went to China -- or for that matter, India, Pakistan, Brazil or some other country? Fine. How about the fact that powerful unions have driven up wages and benefits and pension plans to the point where they've placed many U.S. workers out of the market and made foreign labor more attractive in comparison?
Tweet that, pal.
Other anti-China tweets from Progress Kentucky included:
"@mcconnellpress Mitch and his $$$ have VERY strong ties to #China (that place your job moved to)"
"I think you'd have to go to NY NJ TX & China to find the people #MitchMcConnell represents! @mcconnellpress"
"Is #MitchMcConnell too close to China? Dissident Wu 'very surprised' at Chao pick po.st/v4qoi7 via @worldnetdaily.com"
"China Premier grateful to McConnell father-in-law/@kygop contributor-4 his role in developing China industry ow.ly/i2Qjv #kyga13"
Characterizing the Twitter messages as "racial slurs" and "the ultimate outrage," McConnell quickly came to his wife's defense -- and his own.
"They will not get away with attacking my wife in this campaign," he said. "Elaine Chao is just as much an American as any of the rest of them. In fact, she had to go through a lot more to become an American."
Earlier, Jesse Benton, campaign manager of McConnell's re-election campaign, accused Progress Kentucky of "race-baiting" and said the people responsible ought to be fired and should "really be ashamed.
Oh yes, they absolutely should be ashamed. When Democrats do things like this, they lose the moral ground to criticize Republicans the next time. They also tell the rest of us that maybe that outrage they claimed to feel when criticizing Republicans for similar tactics wasn't all that authentic.
You know who did come off as authentic and admirable in all this? Judd. As someone who seems more and more interested in challenging McConnell in 2014, she wasted no time in condemning the attack. Judd tweeted:
"Whatever the intention, whatever the venue, whomever the person, attacks or comments on anyone's ethnicity are wrong & patently unacceptable."
She's right. Good for her for saying so. But the intention of Progress Kentucky is quite clear -- to paint Chao as un-American and her husband to be under her influence.
After initially trying to downplay the whole affair and denying any intent at "race-baiting," Progress Kentucky eventually had to swallow its medicine and apologize. But, juvenile to the end, the group didn't apologize to McConnell, who was after all the subject of the attack. In a statement posted online, Executive Director Shawn Reilly apologized only to Chao for what he called an "unnecessary comment."
Speaking of medicine, let's hope now that Republicans have had a strong dose of their own, and having been subjected to this line of attack, they've learned a lesson and will think twice before engaging in nativist shenanigans in the immigration debate.
I know. That won't happen. But we can hope.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.