In the days since the murder of an Indian engineer in Olathe, the Kansas Republican Party and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder have faced a backlash over terrorism-themed mailers sent out ahead of the 2016 election.
The state party sent out a variety of mailers in late October warning of the threat of terrorism. One, which was sent out in a competitive state House district in Wichita, featured an ISIS fighter standing in front of a windmill with the message: “Have you met the new neighbors?”
Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said the mailer and similar ones were “not race-based” and were aimed at the possibility that the Obama administration would move Guantanamo detainees to Fort Leavenworth.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said at the time that the mailer “verges on incitement of violence to Muslims” by insinuating that “the state’s Muslim population is linked to terror groups like ISIS.”
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After Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a 32-year-old engineer from India, was shot and killed in an Olathe bar last week, Barker said that he has received messages on social media telling him “you got blood on your hands.”
Adam W. Purinton, 51, has been charged with fatally shooting Kuchibhotla and wounding Alok Madasani, who is also an Indian national, reportedly because he thought they were Middle Eastern. Another man, Ian Grillot, who came to their defense, also was wounded.
In the wake of the shooting, some activists on social media have sought to tie the mailers to the incident.
“I think the fear of radical Islamic terrorism resonates with enough voters to get some people elected, but it also has side effects of stoking the flames of fear,” said Devin Wilson, a Lenexa-based activist and environmental scientist who has repeatedly posted on Twitter about the mailers.
Barker said that he doesn’t see any connection between the shooting and the mailers, which he said weren’t sent out in Johnson County. They were sent out in Topeka, Wichita and other parts of the state.
“You have a tragedy like that and people will try to leverage it for political reasons,” he said.
Barker said the state party’s office received a phone call from “some lady who went unhinged and just started screaming that everyone in Kansas got this mailer.”
Wilson, who described himself as a moderate Republican, said he did not think that the postcards caused the shooting but that they contribute “to an overall climate where it’s more normal to be Islamophobic, racist and anti-immigrant.”
Erica Mossman, the owner of an investment company in Leawood, has circulated on social media a postcard that Yoder, an Overland Park Republican, sent out in July depicting an ISIS fighter that warned that “Terrorism can strike any time. Anywhere.”
When she saw that Yoder, whose district includes Olathe, attended a vigil for the victims, Mossman said, she snapped.
“They promoted this narrative and then the event occurs and they act like they have no idea why it happened,” said Mossman, who said she is a registered Republican. “I do feel like Kevin is way off the mark with sending those types of postcards. … My neighbors on the street do look very much like the person on the postcard.”
Yoder’s office rejected the effort to tie the mailers to the shooting.
“Politicizing this tragedy is shameful, beyond the pale, and we’re not going to dignify it with a response. That would run counter to everything Congressman Yoder is trying to do to unify the community and the country in the wake of what happened,” C.J. Grover, Yoder’s spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Yoder’s campaign also said Purinton was not one of the recipients of the postcard.
The Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Kansas City praised Yoder in a Facebook post Wednesday for leading a moment of silence for Kuchibhotla on the floor of the U.S. House this week and urging President Donald Trump to speak out on the shooting.
“Due to his efforts, President Trump heard peoples power and condemned the Olathe Shootings in his address to the congress,” the post said.