Lawmakers take immigration battle to ballot box

Both parties think their immigration message will fire up their base in the midterm elections, ensuring a clash on the campaign trail over one of the most divisive issues facing Congress.

Democrats are slamming Republicans for failing to address the plight of “Dreamers” and families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, labeling the Trump administration as inhumane and accusing GOP leaders of being ineffective.


Trump, meanwhile, is calling attention to the crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally and MS-13 gang members and drumming up fear that the Democrats want open borders, resurrecting the same anti-immigration rhetoric he used on the 2016 campaign trail.

“As a base mobilizer, it’s an effective issue,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.

“But it’s effective for both sides,” he added.

Amplifying the issue, however, could be a risky gambit for vulnerable GOP lawmakers who are up for reelection in suburban and moderate swing districts.

“A lot of the competitive races are in suburban districts with upper-class independents and Republicans,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist.  “They aren’t preoccupied with MS-13. They care about these kids at the border.”

GOP leaders had largely tried to avoid tackling immigration in a critical midterm election year where their House and Senate majorities are at stake.

But the hot-button issue was thrust into the spotlight this summer after an insurgent group of centrist Republicans tried to use a discharge petition to force a freewheeling House floor debate on immigration.

And the Trump’s administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy has led to thousands of children being separated from their parents at the border, sparking international outrage and creating an election-year nightmare for the GOP.

Two Republican-backed immigration bills to protect Dreamers, who came to the country illegally as children, failed in the House this month. And neither chamber tackled legislation to prevent family separations at the border before they left town for the July Fourth recess, though Trump did sign an executive order to temporarily fix the problem.

Democrats are already seizing on the images and audio of children crying and screaming for their mothers while being held in detention centers behind chain-linked fences — recordings that are sure to be made into attack ads this fall.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) even tried to play the audio on the House floor earlier this month before he was shut down.

“As we sit here today, there’s still thousands of babies and kids ripped away from their parents by Trump’s child separation policy that have not been reunited,” Lieu said on the House floor this week before lawmakers left town. “That is evil, and it’s shameful that no democratic bills have been brought on this floor to address that.”

“Have a nice vacation,” he added.

Democratic strategists, pointing to a recent CNN poll, say the party still maintains an enthusiasm advantage in the midterms, largely fueled by rage over Trump’s policies such as the family separation issue.

And a Gallup poll released Monday shows that Trump’s approval rating sunk to 41 percent, down from his personal best of 45 percent approval just a week ago.

“Any hopes that Republicans have of maintaining the House rests on whether their voters are more enthusiastic than the Democrats. … The midterms are all about turnout,” Bannon said. “And the Democratic base is a lot more galvanized right now.”

Some Democrats are even further escalating the immigration issue. A number of lawmakers — including 2020 presidential contender Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandTreat broadband as infrastructure and we have a chance to get it right House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors To make energy green, remove red tape MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Mark PocanMark William PocanLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals Overnight Defense: 6B Pentagon spending bill advances | Navy secretary nominee glides through hearing | Obstacles mount in Capitol security funding fight House panel advances 6B Pentagon bill on party-line vote MORE (D-Wis.) — are now calling to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But some election strategists warn that the strategy could backfire and play right into the GOP’s talking point that Democrats favor open borders and illegal immigration.

“There’s a risk of Democrats overplaying their hand here … especially if they appear to not care about enforcing the law,” Mackowiak said.

Some Democratic lawmakers recognize the potential perils if their immigration messaging gets lost.

“We’re on solid footing as long as we ensure the American people that we’re for a controlled and safe border,” Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanHouse passes spending bill to boost Capitol Police and Hill staffer pay Tim Ryan slams McCarthy for mocking Capitol physician, mask mandate Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections MORE (D-Ohio) told The Hill. “I think Democrats need to talk about that more. It’s not always clear, because we do get animated about what they’re doing, which is so egregious and so painful to watch.”

Republicans are starting to feel hopeful that they’ll be able to counteract the anti-Trump energy on the left, with Trump calling immigration a winning issue for the party.

“They want to use the issue. And I like the issue for the election, too,” Trump said. “Our issue is strong borders, no crime. Their issue is open borders, let MS-13 all over our country. That’s what’s going to happen if you listen to them.”

The president has recently ramped up his hard-line immigration rhetoric on both social media and at campaign events, telling attendees of a rally in Nevada “our immigration laws are a laughing stock all over the world.”

Trump has cautioned that an open border policy “will bring tremendous crime” and an influx of drugs and gang violence from groups like MS-13.

The president has also attempted to shift the narrative away from family separations at the border, hosting an event last week at the White House for families whose relatives were killed by immigrants in the country illegally.

Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) — one of the leading voices in the conservative House Freedom Caucus — said he’s confident immigration can be a winning issue for Republicans during the midterms.

“I mean, in my own area it's one of the top issues, and you can tell because the Democrats don't want to talk about it,” he told The Hill.

The Virginia conservative, who was a strong supporter of one of the failed immigration bills, said he believes that with a few changes the House could pass something that’s “compatible with what Trump wanted.”

“We're willing to compromise to get good policy through, but it looks to the casual observer that the Democrats just want a campaign issue,” he continued. “They don't want to solve the problem.”

A hard-line immigration stance worked for Trump on the presidential campaign trail, where he entered the race saying Mexico is sending criminals and rapists to the U.S.

But the message may not have the same impact in the midterms, where the path to the majority largely runs through suburban swing districts. Most of the Republicans who signed the discharge petition to protect Dreamers are facing tough reelection races in those areas.

“There are risks for both sides. In competitive districts, that rhetoric obviously plays differently,” Mackowiak said.