After largely avoiding immigration as a wedge issue in competitive races, Republicans are suddenly hitting Democrats for supporting “amnesty.”
President Obama’s decision earlier this month to delay any executive action on immigration until after the midterms has given national Republicans a new way to tie Democrats to the unpopular president.
“Short term, it’s an entirely different electoral landscape,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who advised Sen. John McCainJohn McCainTrump's new debate challenge: Silence Senate rivals gear up for debates McCain opponent releases new ad hitting his record MORE’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential bid. “What looks good today might not look good tomorrow.”
GOP ads on immigration have hit Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen Jeanne ShaheenDems call for better birth control access for female troops GOP puts shutdown squeeze play on Dems Senators seek to boost women in international forces MORE (N.H.), Mark PryorMark PryorCotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Top Democrats are no advocates for DC statehood MORE (Ark.) and Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuLouisiana needs Caroline Fayard as its new senator La. Senate contender books seven-figure ad buy Crowded field muddies polling in Louisiana Senate race MORE (La.), who all voted for the Senate’s bipartisan reform bill last year. They have also targeted Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Georgia Democrat Michelle Nunn, who also support a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally.
The ads are sprinkled with images of President Obama, linking him to the Democratic candidates, and they have the potential to move the needle for the GOP, as they look to capture six seats for Senate control.
In a sign of vulnerable Democrats’ nervousness on the issue, Landrieu, Shaheen and Pryor all voted with Republicans last week on a procedural maneuver backed by Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump enters new debate frontier Pence offers Cruz 'heartfelt thanks' for Trump endorsement Cruz: Trump hasn't apologized for personal insults MORE (R-Texas), which was a stepping stone to a vote to block Obama from taking executive action on immigration.
Obama lost all of these states, except New Hampshire, in 2012. But that was in a presidential election — the midterm electorate is more conservative and white, and the president’s poll numbers have dropped there, along with Shaheen’s.
The picture will be far different in the 2016 presidential election, where Hispanic voters will be much more prevalent.
“If this were a presidential election, President Obama would have passed the executive action,” said Ana Navarro, another adviser to the 2008 McCain campaign.
Evidence of the stark difference between the midterms and a presidential election is that Obama took action in the other direction, deferring some child deportations through the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program, in 2012.
“When he issued DACA in 2012 he was saving his skin, by not issuing executive action in 2014, he's trying to save Senate Democrats,” Navarro said.
Another Republican operative added, “What is happening now is Republicans are conflating administrative action with amnesty, and the collateral damage of that is the [gang of 8] Senate bill.”
“I think the politics are with us now,” the operative added. “But I think that it will be fleeting, and I think the politics will whip back around to being problematic for us.”
Even this year, Republican efforts are complicated by the fact that many were singing a different tune on immigration in 2013. That was in the wake of the party’s 2012 loss, before immigration reform died in the House, and before the surge of unaccompanied children at the border and Obama’s plan for executive action changed the politics.
Fourteen Republican senators voted in favor of an immigration reform bill including a path to citizenship that passed the Senate in June 2013.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee released a video in May 2013 featuring Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate rivals gear up for debates Rubio: End of Obama's term could be 'most damaging yet' Fifteen years since pivotal executive order, STORM Act could help fight terror finance MORE (R-Fla.), then leading the charge for the bill, touting the “good of immigration.”
GOP senators who voted for that initial bill had to answer for it in their own primaries this year, with Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Senators buck spending bill over Export-Import Bank Pelosi pans latest GOP stopgap spending offer MORE (R-S.C.) and Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderOvernight Regulation: Lawsuits pile up against Obama overtime rule The American people are restive, discouraged and sometimes suicidal GOP chairman eyes lame-duck for passing medical cures bill MORE (R-Tenn.) facing attacks from their more conservative primary opponents that they supported “amnesty.” Both easily survived their challenges, though.
NRSC communications director Brad Dayspring tweeted in June 2013: “Facts matter: NRSC doesn't plan a major focus on immigration or to engage in a national effort around the legislation,” but he also noted that the GOP believes immigration reform could hurt several Democratic senators at home.
Now, the NRSC’s independent expenditure arm is running an ad in Georgia featuring giant red text reading, “Barack ObamaBarack ObamaTrump's new debate challenge: Silence WATCH LIVE: Obama speaks at African American Museum opening Obama talks racial tension at African-American museum opening MORE + Michelle Nunn” over the word “Amnesty.”
Asked how that ad fits with the NRSC’s actions in 2013 and some Republican senators’ support for the reform bill, NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen hit Nunn again on “amnesty" and the looming post-election executive action from the president.
“The ad is about Michelle Nunn, the handpicked candidate of Harry ReidHarry ReidBlack Caucus demands Flint funding from GOP Report: Intelligence officials probing Trump adviser's ties to Russia White House preps agencies for possible shutdown MORE, and her proclivity to defer to President Obama, who has made clear that one way or another — legal or not — he intends on granting amnesty for millions, something that polls show Americans have huge reservations about,” Hougesen wrote in an email.
Democrats are hitting back by pointing out McCain and Marco Rubio, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, also voted for immigration reform, editing in their names to make a new version of a Republican ad that had been attacking Nunn on “amnesty.”
The prominence in the news of militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has given Scott Brown, the Republican Senate nominee in New Hampshire, a chance to tie border security to the threat, although Homeland Security officials say there is “no credible intelligence” to suggest ISIS is trying to enter from Mexico.
“If anyone (including ISIS) can cross our borders at any time, with anything in their possession, then Washington has no control over our nation’s security from terrorist attack,” Brown, a former Massachusetts senator, wrote in a letter to Shaheen last week.
The Louisiana race features even more tangled immigration politics ahead of the all-party jungle primary on Election Day.
Landrieu, a Democrat who voted for the Senate immigration bill, has an ad attacking Republican Bill Cassidy for being too weak on border security and saying that she voted “nine times to block amnesty.”
In Kentucky, outside group the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, is slamming Grimes on the issue.
Asked if he was concerned the line of attack could harm Republicans in 2016, Scott Jennings, a spokesman for the group, emailed: “The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition is only concerned with the policy similarities between Alison Grimes and Barack Obama.”
Lanhee Chen, policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said that putting aside the midterm attacks, he is hopeful because possible Republican presidential candidates have said they are committed to immigration reform.
“All of the potential candidates, maybe with the exception of Ted Cruz, have all been pretty forthcoming about the importance of reform going forward,” Chen said.