It’s getting to be a pattern, if not a parody. Every week that Congress is in session, Republican leaders march up to microphones and talk about the tremendous success of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Every week, as soon as the statements stop, reporters hurl questions about the outrage of the week. Currently, that’s the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policies.
Republicans, like Democrats, are utterly unable to break into news cycles once the president has molded them. That pattern may be worse for Republicans, and this week’s latest Pew Research poll showed why. Asked to rate the parties across 13 issue categories, registered voters trusted Republicans more on five: terrorism, taxes, the budget deficit (really!), trade and the economy. Those are exactly the issues on which the GOP’s campaign apparatus would like to fight the election. The American Action Network and Congressional Leadership Fund, both arms of the GOP leadership, have spent millions of dollars talking up tax cuts.
But the president, who controls earned media like no one on Earth, is not really talking about those issues. According to Pew, voters prefer Democrats to handle immigration by a 14-point margin, health care by a 16-point margin and race relations by a 24-point margin. In speeches and administrative actions this week, the president shifted his focus to those issues. And at the moment, Democrats are incredibly comfortable arguing about them.
At the moment. There are ways to make immigration policy difficult for Democratic candidates, as the White House knows. In the five deep-red states where the president wants to unseat Democratic senators — and in more-purple states, where the party has nominated hard-right candidates — Republicans are trying to shift the topic from family separation to violent crime.
In a statement, Montana GOP nominee Matt Rosendale hit Sen. Jon Tester (D) on his opposition to “zero tolerance” immigration measures, saying that tipped his hand on every other aspect of immigration; he had voted “not once, twice, but three times AGAINST ending sanctuary cities.” Pennsylvania’s Lou Barletta (R) went the same route, saying that Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D) was “finally showing his true colors as a supporter of this dangerous open border policy.”
But the bifurcated 2018 map — Senate races in Trump country, House races in the ever-bluer suburbs — reveals how little appetite there is for an immigration fight on these grounds. Today, 15 Republicans whose districts voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 opposed the more conservative immigration bill by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). They were joined by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the only member of the House leadership team who faces a potentially competitive race this year.
A few weeks ago, Democrats were outwardly nervous about whether economic growth and high-profile (if incomplete) peace talks with North Korea were blunting their momentum for the fall. A couple of headline-conquering generic ballot polls found the Democrats’ lead shrinking or disappearing — not something that many individual candidates care about but something that rattles the easily spooked class of Democratic donors.
The problem for Republicans is that both of those positive trends could continue yet be reduced in their relevance for November, if the White House keeps careening into the wrong fights. House Republicans, who began the week with just 40 days of work left on their calendar — seriously, check for yourself — will have spent four of them being poleaxed on issues that divide their conference and alienate most voters.