State Watch

GOP warns crime, immigration will spike if Dems win

TUCSON, Ariz. - For a quarter century, crime rates around the country have fallen precipitously. The number of immigrants detained at the border with Mexico has risen from last year's lows, but it remains below historical averages.

But Republican candidates across the country, from this city 60 miles north of the border to states like North Dakota and Georgia, are warning voters that both crime and immigration are likely to spike if their Democratic opponents win office in November.

"Everybody wants their community safe. Everybody wants America safe," Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) told a group of Republican volunteers here recently. "This is about community security. This is about opioids and the drugs coming through [the border]. This is about the cartels."

In conversations with voters around Arizona over the last week, many said they did not feel safe in their own communities. They cited lax border enforcement and the resulting crime they say comes with it.

Bill Coleman, a retiree who has lived in Phoenix and now Tucson for more than 50 years, said he is concerned about the number - and type - of immigrants coming illegally across the border, saying they are immigrants who come not just from Central America, but increasingly from Asia and the Middle East.

"We've had crime in this country forever, but I think we have a new dimension of crime," Coleman said as he left a meeting of local Republican activists. "We get sold a bill of goods about what's going on at the border by the national media."

Polls now show voters see immigration as an issue almost as critical to the future of the country as health care and education, a rise driven almost entirely by Republican voters.

In July 22 percent of those polled by Gallup cited immigration as the most important issue facing the nation; as recently as last year, just 4 percent cited immigration.

"Illegal immigration is by far the top issue for Republicans in Arizona," said Mike Noble, a Republican pollster here. The GOP's focus on the issue is "clearly a move to motivate their base to turn out come November."

The television airwaves in Arizona, and across the country, are filled with Republicans warning about Democrats who they say favor open borders and radical immigration policies. The Democratic nominee for governor here, college professor David Garcia, had barely won the right to face Gov. Doug Ducey (R) before Ducey began hammering him with critical advertisements focused on immigration.

"Public safety is a big part of the governor's job, and in the state of Arizona there's a clear contrast between myself and my opponent," Ducey said in an interview. "We are on the front lines of what's happening with drug cartels, with human trafficking, with child sex trafficking."

Garcia has not said he would like to see Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) abolished, but he said in a statement in July he thought the agency should be replaced "with an immigration system that reflects our American values, values I and so many before have served to protect."

Democrats say the focus on public safety, immigration and crime is a smokescreen, aimed at distracting from other hot-button issues. In some states, Democrats have made Republican opposition to protections offered by the Affordable Care Act a top talking point; in others, like Arizona, education is becoming a touchstone after teacher protests earlier this year.

"The politicians who have made attacking immigrants their core, they're all out of work," said Ian Danley, Garcia's campaign manager. "This immigration rhetoric is gasoline. It burns hot and then it disappears."

McSally, locked in a tight battle for an open U.S. Senate seat with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D), is like many Republicans running for office today: She supports building President Trump's proposed wall along the border with Mexico and the access roads that would support border enforcement.

And she castigates Democrats who want to abolish ICE - even though Sinema does not support eliminating the 15-year-old agency.

"Whether it's their open border policies or abolishing ICE, you name it, they're tripping over themselves to go left," McSally said of Democrats.

In an email, Sinema's communications director, James Owen, said McSally's focus on border security and immigration is "an effort to distract from Congresswoman McSally's harmful record voting to roll back protections for Arizonans with pre-existing conditions, cutting Medicare, supporting Social Security privatization, and undermining public education in our state."

Republican candidates are relying on warnings about rampant crime and unchecked immigration, party strategists say, as a way to energize voters who are otherwise unenthusiastic about turning out in a midterm election. The message is similar in states close to and far from the border, places that rely on immigrants for jobs such as harvesting crops and those where legislatures have cracked down on illegal immigration.

"It's hard to understand why [Sen.] Heidi Heitkamp, who's a former attorney general, voted to fund sanctuary cities that ignore the rule of law and put our citizens and law enforcement officers at risk," Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) says in a new advertisement against his Democratic opponent. "I don't believe that breaking the law deserves a reward of our tax dollars."

"Again and again, McCaskill sided with liberals protecting sanctuary cities, havens for illegal immigrant criminals," says a narrator in an advertisement against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), released Tuesday by the Republican-backing Senate Leadership Fund.

Observers say immigration and public safety has become top of mind for Republican voters because it is a theme echoed constantly on Fox News and conservative radio - and one raised by Trump, who warns of the threat of violent gangs like MS-13.

"It's always pounded in the primaries by every GOP candidate, from the top of the ballot to the bottom," Noble said.

Noble's firm, OH Predictive Insights, released a survey Tuesday that showed 31 percent of Arizona voters said immigration is the most important issue facing the state - the same percentage as those who cited public education, and more than twice as many as the 13 percent who cited health care.

"The reality is the border is an issue, and border security is national security, and it results directly in public safety in Arizona," Ducey said.

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