The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The explosive politics of deportations

Placeholder while article actions load

When it becomes clearer what President Obama plans to do unilaterally to ease deportations, analysts will rush to declare it an epic disaster for red state Dems. Republicans will use it to amplify their case that a GOP-controlled Senate is necessary to act as a check on Obama lawlessness — and commentators will likely see this as a potent message in core red state battlegrounds.

So what do top Democratic strategists really think?

Despite some suggestions to the contrary, DSCC chair Michael Bennet has not urged the White House to hold off on acting until after the election. At the same time, some Democratic strategists are privately worried it could have serious unforeseen political consequences.

A source close to Bennet — the Colorado Senator who oversees Senate races for Dems — tells me Bennet privately communicated his view to the White House that if administration lawyers think there’s a solid case for acting, then it should move forward, regardless of the timing of the election.

“He said that once the recommendations come into the White House and they are vetted, and they work from a legal and practical standpoint, the president should act, without regard to the election,” the source tells me, in a reference to the fact that the White House is waiting for lawyers to determine what Obama can do.

However, there are important nuances. The source says Bennet believes the current crisis on the border should be managed before Obama rolls out his executive action on deportations — and that this has not happened yet.

Bennet also told the White House that he would prefer it if the executive action were broadened to include administrative changes sought by business, agriculture and tech interests, which could potentially build broader support. There are already conversations underway between the White House and these constituencies as to what such a thing could look like, though they may not go anywhere.

“He said, ‘if you’re going to do something, broader is better,'” the source says.

Finally, the point here is not that Bennet has no worries about how this could impact the 2014 candidates. Rather, the idea is that there are regional differences that will mean the political implications of this vary, and so the Dem candidates themselves should express any worries to the White House. Indeed, Bennet expects that the administration will factor all these considerations — Senate map politics included — into its decision on its own.

Two very vulnerable Democrats — Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan — have already criticized the pending executive action, and more very well may follow. At the same time, it could provide a lift to Senator Mark Udall in Colorado, and it may not be much of a factor either way in states like Iowa and Michigan.

Some Dem strategists worry that the party’s previous suggestions that Obama has been tough on deportations have made it impossible to explain any executive action to ease them.

“The president has in the past used deportations as a measure of his toughness on immigration,” one Dem strategist advising multiple red state candidates tells me. “If you now appear to be saying, ‘now I’m not deporting people,’ that’s a problem.”

In the realm of reality, exercising prosecutorial discretion to focus on the removal of serious criminal offenders and recent border crossers — as opposed to low-level offenders with longtime ties to communities — is not at all incompatible with being tough on the border. The question is whether Dems can successfully make this argument.

“If we’re saying, ‘Let’s deport criminals and not grandmothers,’ that will be completely defensible,” the strategist continues. “The question is whether people will understand that is the choice.”

In the end, the politics of this are unpredictable, in part because we’re entering uncharted political waters here. On the one hand, there is broad public support for a path to legalization. But we don’t know how swing voters will react to a unilateral executive move.

And let’s face it — the brutal truth of the matter is that control of the Senate will be decided in places where Obama is already hideously unpopular with white voters. So it wouldn’t be surprising if embattled Dem incumbents in these places instead criticize Obama’s move to try to achieve distance from the president. Which perhaps they can do effectively.