GOP divided on anti-Biden midterm message

McALLEN, Texas — Elevate the border crisis or a throw-everything-at-the-wall approach?

The 2022 elections are still more than a year away, but congressional Republicans are wrestling with their strategy: rally behind a central message — complete former President TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE’s wall and stop the surge of migrants crossing the southern border — or attack President BidenJoe BidenUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks GOP Rep. Cawthorn likens vaccine mandates to 'modern-day segregation' MORE and Hill Democrats on a broad range of disparate issues, from socialism, "defund the police" and inflation to China and critical race theory.

At the moment, that 2022 strategy is in flux, with some Republicans warning that a narrower message, one focused on the border and economy, is the key to winning back the House and Senate next year.

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“We don’t want to get too far out trying to be all things to all people,” said Rep. Roger WilliamsJohn (Roger) Roger WilliamsNew spotlight on secretaries of state as electoral battlegrounds GOP divided on anti-Biden midterm message The Hill's Morning Report - Bidens to visit Surfside, Fla., collapse site MORE (R-Texas), who understands marketing and sales from decades of running his family’s auto dealership outside of Dallas. 

This week, top Republicans turned their attention to the southern border. Trump and a band of conservative House lawmakers from the Republican Study Committee (RSC) traveled here to the Rio Grande Valley, an immigration hot spot where hundreds of Central American migrants — helped by Mexican drug cartels and human smugglers — have been exploiting huge gaps in Trump’s unfinished border wall and crossing into the southern tip of Texas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) appeared alongside Trump at the border and vowed to finish constructing the former president’s “big, beautiful wall” by tapping private donations and state funds. Meanwhile, two potential 2024 GOP presidential candidates — South Dakota Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemDozens of Republican governors call for meeting with Biden on border surge Juan Williams: Shame on the anti-mandate Republicans White House debates vaccines for air travel MORE and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisDeSantis's new surgeon general opposes vaccine mandates People close to Trump say he 'wants back' in national spotlight: report Poll: Trump dominates 2024 Republican primary field MORE — pledged to send law enforcement officers and National Guard troops from their states to help Abbott shore up the southern border.

Just west of McAllen, at a point where Trump’s imposing 40-foot wall abruptly ended, it was easy to see why the border issue has resonated and been polling well with the American public.

A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll this month found that nearly 7 in 10 voters think that Biden’s policies encourage illegal immigration, while 55 percent of voters think Biden should have left Trump’s policies in place.

During a three-hour period in the middle of the night in the tiny town of La Joya, dozens of migrants — many unaccompanied young children and mothers carrying babies — passed along muddy footpaths through this corridor and surrendered themselves to border patrol agents, who placed them on buses headed for nearby detention facilities.  

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“It’s visceral: images of young children being abandoned at the border. And we know that the incidences of human trafficking are skyrocketing and the fentanyl that's coming over the border. The recognition of that is finally penetrating out there. People have a rising concern about it because now it's hitting very close to home,” GOP Conference Vice Chair Mike JohnsonJames (Mike) Michael JohnsonHouse passes bill to prevent shutdown and suspend debt limit Democrats to nix B for Israel's Iron Dome from bill to avert shutdown Louisiana delegation split over debt hike bill with disaster aid MORE (R-La.), a member of leadership who helps run party messaging, said in an interview standing at the base of Trump’s border wall.  

“The people that are coming across here, they're not staying in McAllen, Texas; they're going throughout the country. And the federal government is paying for the transport in many cases and dropping them off in communities and in a town near you.”

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House Border Security Caucus, said he’s been studying border issues for years and that this is the worst he’s ever seen it, calling it an “unmitigated disaster” and “immoral.” Several weeks ago, Babin pitched to Trump the idea of him coming down to the border to highlight the problems; Trump and his team loved the idea.

“President Biden, Vice President Harris, they raised their hand and oath of office and swore to affirm that they were going to uphold the law to protect and defend the Constitution,” Babin told a small group of reporters who joined the RSC group in McAllen. “Yet they have absolutely, willfully opened our border up. They have empowered the cartels. The cartels are having a field day. They are de facto in control of our border right now, and continuing to do so, simply because our administration is simply not there.”

But on the same day that the RSC members were sounding the alarm on border security in La Joya, Texas, another group of Republican leaders 1,772 miles away in Washington, were holding a one-sided hearing with Trump officials examining whether the coronavirus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Democrats did not join, and Republicans howled that the Biden administration is concealing intelligence that would expose a China coverup. U.S. officials, however, have not concluded yet whether the virus came from an animal transmission or a lab leak.

“How did COVID-19 start? What was the origin of COVID-19? We've asked that question for more than a year, and requested that the House majority hold hearings to investigate the origins of COVID-19. Perplexingly, Speaker Pelosi has refused to allow a single hearing, calling it a diversion,” House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseHouse passes bill to prevent shutdown and suspend debt limit Democrats to nix B for Israel's Iron Dome from bill to avert shutdown Louisiana delegation split over debt hike bill with disaster aid MORE (R-La.), the No. 2 leader, said as he opened the hearing. 

“The evidence continues mounting that this was a man-made disaster that started in the Wuhan lab,” Scalise added. “If that is the case, then it might be considered dramatically worse than Chernobyl.”

But the unproven China lab-leak theory, something that takes the focus away from Trump’s own mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak that has so far killed 600,000 people in America, is just one of a myriad of issues on which Republicans have been hammering Democrats.

Higher prices for gas, milk and Chipotle burritos? Blame Biden and big-spending Democrats in Congress. Violent riots in cities from people who want to defund the police? Blame Biden and “the squad” led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezFeehery: The confidence game Democrats face full legislative plate and rising tensions McCarthy on Dems' spending bill: 'The amount of money we spent to win World War II' MORE (D-N.Y.). Mad that schools are teaching that systemic racism is woven into American laws and institutions? Blame Biden and his “woke agenda.”

To GOP leaders, who can win back the majority by flipping a handful of House seats and a single Senate seat next year, everything is a crisis these days.

Democrats are “turning their backs on America,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyWoodward: Milley was 'setting in motion sensible precautions' with calls to China Thompson says he hopes Jan 6. committee can complete work by 'early spring' Juan Williams: Shame on the anti-mandate Republicans MORE (R-Calif.) told reporters in the Capitol on Thursday. “The Biden administration democratic policies are facing multiple crises in our country. We need solutions.”

Rep. Tim WalbergTimothy (Tim) Lee WalbergEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — West Coast wildfires drive East Coast air quality alerts House passes bill requiring EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water GOP divided on anti-Biden midterm message MORE (R-Mich.) said Republicans can talk about and tie together all of these unrelated issues using a simple catch-phrase: “Restore America.”

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Rep. Chip RoyCharles (Chip) Eugene RoyGOP leader taking proxy voting fight to Supreme Court Reps. Greene, Roy fined for not wearing masks on House floor Photos of the Week: Afghanistan evacuees, Paralympics and the French fire MORE (R-Texas), who was targeted by Democrats in 2020 and attended Trump’s speech at the border Wednesday, argued that Republicans have a lot of good campaign issues to run on this cycle. That’s a good problem to have, he said. 

“The hardest part is what to focus on,” Roy told The Hill. Picking one issue is just “campaigning 101.”

But Roy, who is part of the RSC leadership team, said it’s still too early to know what issue will be dominating headlines and driving voters to the polls in 16 months. By this time in the 2020 cycle, two major historic events — the COVID-19 pandemic and the police killing of a Black man named George Floyd — had not even occurred yet.

“Events determine elections,” Roy said. “If you had asked me last year in May whether I was going to run hard against ‘defunding the police’ against [Democrat] Wendy Davis in Austin, Texas, that wouldn’t necessarily have been on my front burner."

“The summer unfolded and all of sudden, there’s your issue. Events drive politics, so be ready,” Roy continued. “We’ll keep working on things and as Democrats keep screwing up, we’ll pick the issue to pounce on when it’s appropriate.”