Vulnerable Republicans follow Trump’s lead on immigration
During the House GOP’s last political meeting before hitting the campaign trail, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) urged members to localize their races and focus on issues like the economy, taxes and jobs.
But with a less than two weeks before the Nov. 6 midterm elections, many Republican candidates are taking their cues from President Trump and have turned the election into a fight over national policies on immigration, border security and crime.
“Republicans must make the horrendous, weak and outdated immigration laws, and the Border, a part of the Midterms!” Trump wrote on Twitter last week.
That same day, Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.), whose race is listed by Cook Political Report as a “toss-up,” promoted an attack ad featuring Clark County Sheriff Berl Perdue, who labeled the Democratic candidate’s immigration agenda as “dangerous.”
“I oppose Amy McGrath’s dangerous agenda, which would open our borders and enable drug cartels to flood our towns with heroin and fentanyl,” Perdue says in the ad.
A few days later, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), a GOP leadership ally who is in a toss-up race in the Dallas suburbs, tweeted that the “illegal caravan must be stopped.”
“A major difference between myself & my opponent: I believe these people should not enter the US, while Colin [Allred] wants to make all illegal immigrants citizens,” he wrote on Monday. “Vote EARLY to end immigration loopholes & secure our border!”
Hillary Clinton narrowly won Sessions’s district in 2016.
The shift in messaging could pay off at the polls for some vulnerable GOP candidates, especially since immigration was a political winner in 2016 and because the Republican tax cuts have not resonated well on the campaign trail this year.
But the focus on border security risks alienating independent, moderate and Latino voters, which is why Republican leaders on Capitol Hill urged lawmakers to run hyperlocal campaigns that tout a more inclusive and positive economic message.
“Midterms are generally base elections, so immigration can be effective for Republicans,” said Texas-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, while noting that the issue isn’t helpful to candidates like Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Will Hurd (R-Texas), as well as those in Southern California.
“There are winners and losers with this strategy among Republicans,” he added.
Trump has recently escalated his hard-line immigration rhetoric, reviving the same playbook that propelled him to victory two years ago and seizing on a “caravan” of Central American migrants making their way north toward the U.S. to seek asylum.
In campaign rallies and on Twitter, the president has repeatedly stoked fear that the caravan, which is still roughly 1,000 miles away from the U.S. border, is an imminent national security threat that will bring criminals, gangs and drugs into the country.
Trump has also warned that Democrats would allow open borders and “mob rule” if they win control of the House and Senate next month.
“This will be the election of the caravan, Kavanaugh, law and order, tax cuts and common sense,” Trump said Monday at a packed rally for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), referring to the Senate confirmation battle over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Now, as Republicans make their closing arguments to voters, a number of GOP candidates are adopting a similar tone and putting immigration — and the caravan — front and center in their campaigns.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who is in a toss-up race and has run campaign ads on health care, the economy and his bipartisan bill to stop medical research on dogs, shifted his focus back to immigration over the past few days.
“These folks coming up have commandeered highways going through Mexico with no respect for the law, and when they get here, do you think that will change?” Brat told the John Fredericks radio show on Monday. “My opponent made very clear she’s in favor of sanctuary cities for the criminals and gang members that are coming up. But instead of deporting the criminals and drug dealers, she wants to provide them a sanctuary in Virginia.”
Other vulnerable Republicans in the state are highlighting immigration issues, too.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) released an attack ad this month warning that her challenger opposes “deporting violent MS-13 gang members,” a frequent Trump target.
Last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) unveiled a TV ad labeling Rep. Scott Taylor’s (R-Va.) opponent as “dangerous” and “radical” when it comes to her immigration positions, which include opposing Trump’s proposed border wall.
The House GOP’s campaign arm also released an immigration ad this month in a key Arizona race, where former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) and Republican candidate Lea Marquez Peterson are facing off to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Martha McSally (R), who is running for Senate.
“They talk about solving illegal immigration, but nothing happens,” says a blonde-haired woman in the ad, as she locks her doors and windows as police lights flash outside. “We who live here are forgotten.”
The shift to immigration is likely a smart move for the GOP, say Republican strategists, who note fear tends to be a stronger motivating factor for voters in the midterms.
Additionally, the party’s message on tax cuts and the economy hasn’t resonated as strongly as expected on the campaign trail, whereas immigration and border security have fired up the GOP base, increasing the odds of higher voter turnout among those Republicans.
It’s a stark contrast from this summer, when Republicans were playing defense after Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy led to migrant families being separated at the U.S. border. But Mackowiak said the caravan, which has been broadcast all over cable news, is a “game changer” for the GOP.
“The family-separation policy was as politically bad for Republicans as the caravan story is for Democrats,” Mackowiak said.
But the tactic could isolate Latinos and moderates, who are expected to form crucial voting blocs in a number of key battleground districts.
Mackowiak acknowledged that some of the immigration rhetoric — like Trump making unsubstantiated claims that “Middle Easterners” have joined the caravan — are not helpful or necessary.
Republican candidate Maria Elvira Salazar, who is running in an open, “lean Democratic” race in South Florida, warned that not everyone will view the caravan as a bunch of criminals.
“You have to understand that Honduras is the most violent country in the hemisphere,” Salazar, a Cuban-American, said on Fox News last week. “And you would do it, too, if your daughter is facing to be raped.”
“I’m not condoning… I believe that we need to have very strict border security,” she added. “But you also have to understand that our neighbors are desperate.”