Republicans eyeing White House take hard line on immigration

Several potential 2024 hopefuls in the Republican Party are pouncing on immigration as a top issue to get an edge in the early jockeying for the next presidential race.

The dynamic was on full display this past week when former President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE and Texas Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottDozens of Republican governors call for meeting with Biden on border surge The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration O'Rourke prepping run for governor in Texas: report MORE (R), two potential contenders, visited the southern border with roughly two dozen House Republicans in tow. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisPresident Biden's vaccination plan is Constitutional – and necessary Faith leaders call on Congress to lead the response to a global pandemic Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE (R) and South Dakota Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemWhite House debates vaccines for air travel South Dakota lawmakers release petition to impeach state attorney general OSHA faces big challenge with Biden vaccine mandate MORE (R) also made headlines when they announced they would send police and National Guard troops to the border. And senators eyeing 2024 bids is making hay about a jump in attempted border crossings.

The flood of attention at the border comes as polls show the issue continues to rev up the GOP base – making it impossible to ignore for any Republican with aspirations for higher office.

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“I think if you see people who are potentially interested in running, who are taking these positions, who are making it front and center, who are talking about border security in a public way, I think it certainly is a way to help them with Republican primary voters nationwide,” said Texas-based GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser.

“Anybody who's thinking about running for president in 2024 will be expected to talk about this issue and will be expected to be seen as leading on this issue,” he added. “I think otherwise it'll be difficult for them to get the nomination.”

Angst among Republicans over immigration had been building up since the start of the Biden administration, with President BidenJoe BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE revoking a slate of Trump-era immigration policies. Grumblings grew louder as encounters between border agents and migrants continually rose, hitting a monthly high of 180,034 in May.

The complaints exploded into a rallying cry after a trip by Vice President Harris to Central America, during which she swatted away a question from NBC News’s Lester Holt as to why she hadn’t visited the border, responding that she had also not yet visited Europe. Harris later visited the border town of El Paso after the pressure from Republicans built.

Those developments offered potential 2024 candidates a prime opening to go on offense on an issue that has been front and center for Republican voters since Trump rode it to the White House.

“Everybody is well aware of just how much mileage Trump got out of this in 2016 by being as strident on it as he was, and so I expect that success to translate itself into people trying to replicate it,” GOP strategist Scott Jennings told The Hill.

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Potential 2024 candidates have looked for various ways to capitalize on the issue.

Abbott, a border state governor, has vowed to use a combination of public and private funds to continue construction on a border wall beyond his visit with Trump to Pharr, Texas. DeSantis and Noem, while not overseeing border states, sent police officers and troops to secure the boundary, respectively, casting immigration as a crisis fueled by Biden’s policies.

“The border is a national security crisis that requires the kind of sustained response only the National Guard can provide. We should not be making our own communities less safe by sending our police or Highway Patrol to fix a long-term problem President Biden’s Administration seems unable or unwilling to solve,” Noem said in a statement, an apparent attempt to distinguish her decision to send the National Guard from DeSantis’s choice to send law enforcement.

Senators who also have an eye on 2024 are jumping in. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke prepping run for governor in Texas: report Support for Abbott plunging in Texas: poll White House debates vaccines for air travel MORE (R-Texas) is making floor speeches bashing Biden’s handling of the border, and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) is pressing the administration to release documents detailing its immigration policies.

The broadsides have coincided with recent polls showing that immigration is one of the highest priorities for the GOP. Eighty-seven percent of Republicans in a YouGov/Economist poll from last month said immigration was “very” or “somewhat” important to them, and the issue ranked only second in importance to jobs and the economy.

Several operatives who spoke to The Hill said immigration had become as important to the GOP grassroots as abortion and gun rights, which have long been considered sacrosanct in Republican politics.

“Republican primary voters have always looked at candidates' positions on abortion in some ways as being a litmus test. Similarly with their position on gun rights. And I think now the last few cycles, immigration is right up there with those issues in terms of importance to the Republican primary base and kind of a litmus test,” GOP pollster Robert Blizzard said.

“Enforcing the law, securing the border, and placing responsible limits or controls on immigration is now party orthodoxy,” added RJ Hauman, the government relations director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Besides revving up the base, immigration is an area in which Republicans see Biden as especially vulnerable.

Republicans have been frustrated by stubborn approval ratings for the president that have remained above 50 percent, both overall and on key issues, making it difficult to seize on one particular topic.

However, polls show Biden’s approval rating is upside-down on immigration, with nearly 60 percent of Americans in a June AP-NORC poll disapproving of his handling on the issue.

“It’s one of those issues that's been red hot for Republicans, but also at the same time, it's one of the issues where - I've heard a lot of people say it's been hard to negatively define Biden. But on this issue, I actually think it's his weakest issue,” Jennings said.

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Now, potential 2024 candidates are making sure not to be outdone by each other when it comes to immigration.

“They are smart to grab this issue and run with it, and not cede it to anybody, including border governors or senators,” Austin-based GOP strategist Corbin Casteel told The Hill, referencing several potential 2024 candidates.

But, he added, Abbott may be “uniquely positioned” on immigration from his perch as Texas governor and is “in a catbird seat on the issue.”

Looking forward, any Republican who seizes on immigration as part of an electoral strategy will be forced to walk a fine line. The pitfalls of overhyping it were laid bare during the Trump years, when the former president used the issue to keep his core base of support together but alienated suburbanites with language viewed as overtly targeting people of specific ethnicities.

The 2024 field is expected to hew closely to Trump’s policies, including erecting a border wall and ramping up deportations. But, strategists say, they will likely try to promote their policies with more “polished” language.

“I think they're smart enough to know you can have your cake and eat it too,” Steinhauser said. “They're going to have to hit the right kind balance between the tough talk and rhetoric and tough policies with the humanitarian side of things.”

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Democrats, dismissing the criticism, are expected to closely tie any 2024 candidate to the Trump-era immigration policies, which critics called inhumane.

“Donald Trump and Republicans are desperately trying to spin their cruel border policies to mislead voters. For four years, Republicans were silent as Trump sabotaged our immigration system and threw it into chaos,” said Democratic National Committee Rapid Response Director Ammar Moussa.

“If Republicans were serious about addressing issues at the border, they’d join President Biden and Democrats in working to clean up the mess they left behind, create a safe and humane immigration system, and finally pass immigration reform. Anything less is political theater.”

However, given the interest of the Republican base over immigration and Congress’s inability to implement any reform, potential 2024 contenders are expected take the risk and continue talking about the issue, regardless of how far away the election is.

“This issue is not going away, at least probably through ‘24,” said Blizzard. “You've got the folks on the right who are not going to move an inch here, the folks on the left are not going to move an inch on their position either, at least in this Congress, and I would imagine the next Congress before ‘24. This isn't going anywhere.”