Rep. Rob Wittman and his Democratic opponent Qasim Rashid sparred on climate change, Social Security, rural broadband and other issues during a sometimes contentious debate Monday night. But the exchange became most heated when Rashid accused Wittman of a campaign ad “attacking” his Muslim faith and “tying him to Islamic terrorism,” a claim that Wittman denied.
Rashid, 38, a human rights lawyer who lives in Stafford County, was referring to a 30-second television spot Wittman, 61, released last week that criticizes six of Rashid’s tweets, two of which dated back to 2015.
The 30-second spot, which Wittman posted on his Facebook page later Monday night, refers to tweets Rashid sent in 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2020 in which he wrote about terrorism; the deficit and military spending; a conversation he had with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; and his support for the Green New Deal.
In June 2015, Rashid wrote: “26 Americans killed by Muslim extremists since 9/11. 27 killed by their own furniture annually. IKEA -- disarm or we will invade.”
In November 2015, Rashid posted: “Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria had the most terrorist attacks last year. Funny how America has bombed four of them.”
In a 2019 tweet, Rashid recalls a conversation he had with Sanders on the eve of the 2019 election during which Rashid recalls Sanders telling him: “I’m so proud of all you Democrats running in Virginia.”
In September 2020, Rashid laments the rising U.S. deficit, writing: “The Trump administration has actually weakened national security by cutting taxes instead of raising them to pay for a massive – an unnecessary – increase in defense spending.”
Wittman’s ad says the tweets are "radical" and sums them up by saying: “Rashid alleged America is to blame for terrorist attacks, mocked the deaths of Americans killed by extremists, raged against rebuilding our military and promised he’d be a congressman like AOC and Bernie Sanders.”
The debate was held via Zoom and moderated by Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington professor and director of its Center for Leadership and Media Studies. It was sponsored by The Free Lance-Star and the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce.
Rashid brought up the ad in response to a question from Free Lance-Star editorial page editor Barbara Hollingsworth, who asked about Congress’s 18% approval rating and what Wittman might say if someone said he was “part of the problem.”
Wittman replied by saying he only commutes to Washington and strives to listen to his constituents to devise solutions rather than highlighting partisan differences.
Rashid then said: “Speaking of things [apart] from the issues, my opponent is now spending tens of thousands of dollars attacking me for my faith.”
“You know, last year, a man was convicted of trying to kill me for my faith,” Rashid continued, referring to a man who was charged for harassing him on social media. “I’m used to extremists threatening to murder me for my faith. I did not expect that a sitting congressman would be so embarrassed of his own record … that he would try to distract and fear-monger and try to attack me for my faith.”
Wittman called the accusation “an outright lie.”
“That’s beneath the dignity of this office and it’s embarrassing. Again, contrary to my opponent’s false claims, I talked about him trivializing the death, by the hands of terrorists, of 24 Americans,” Wittman added. “He thought it was funny to say, ‘I’m going to compare that against the accidental deaths from people who died in furniture accidents.’”
After the debate, Wittman posted the ad on his Facebook page, saying: “Let’s set the record straight. I have never called Qasim Rashid an Islamic terrorist. What I have done is work to expose his far left ideas to residents of the first district.”
In a statement sent after the debate, Rashid's Communications Director Grace Hagerty said the ad, which she said first aired last week, amounts to "smear tactics."
"We were expecting them to post it at some point. It makes sense that it was tonight because we really saw Rob Wittman fumbling the debate, and when Rob Wittman can’t talk about the issues he resorts to these smear tactics," Hagerty said.
"We weren’t planning on this. We were really planning on connecting with folks in the 1st District," she added.
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org