The aim is to draw a sharp contrast with Democrats over enforcement of border control laws. Republican strategists view immigration as a deeply emotional issue that motivates the conservative base, and they have delighted as liberals push Democrats to the left as a reaction to Trump’s presidency.
“It’s a galvanizing issue among the base,” said Josh Holmes, a top political adviser for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who previously served as his chief of staff. “The Democrats have increasingly migrated to a place on this issue far from where your everyday American is. The contrast is mind-boggling.”
The emerging strategy would represent an echo of Trump’s 2016 campaign, during which he fanned fears of crime, terrorism and economic competition from immigrants. But it could pose risks for a party that has controlled the White House and Congress for nearly two years and faces pressure from voters to demonstrate progress on the Republican governing agenda.
In rapidly diversifying swaths of the Mountain West and the Southeastern states like Florida and Georgia, some Republicans also fear the party could do lasting damage to its prospects in national elections if it does not temper its rhetoric.
Recent election results suggest immigration is not a cure-all for the party’s struggles under an unpopular president. In the Virginia governor’s race last year, voters rejected Republican Ed Gillespie, who parroted Trump’s efforts to drum up fear of MS-13.
Though Senate Republicans believe immigration will play well in conservative states that are key to maintaining a majority, the issue could be less helpful for GOP candidates in suburban jurisdictions that could determine control of the House. Polls show Democrats already holding an edge on the generic House ballot.
“I don’t think it’s going to be decisive in who controls the House,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a veteran party strategist. “It really, really does vary by district.”
For a party that has to contend with the burgeoning political scandal surrounding the White House, however, the immigration debate offers Republicans a chance to change the topic.
A prime example came Wednesday as Trump faced a mounting political firestorm over the felony convictions of Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, and Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer who implicated Trump in criminal wrongdoing.
As coverage of the cases dominated mainstream news outlets, Trump surrogates fanned out to redirect attention onto the news that an undocumented immigrant had been charged with the killing of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old Iowa woman.
Vice President Pence and former Trump campaign aide Corey Lewandowski decried her death on Twitter. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), a close Trump ally running for the Senate, issued a statement comparing it to the murder of a Pennsylvania man years ago. Fox News led its website with a package on the Tibbetts case headlined “Monster Down the Road.”
And Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican Senate candidate, tweeted that the nation needs to “get serious about stopping illegal immigration. We must keep our citizens safe & build the wall. We must find a way to prevent tragedies like this.”
Republican pollster Chris Wilson, who is working on several battleground Senate races, said he expects more GOP candidates to bring up the Tibbetts case.
“It gets to the basic point Republicans have been making” that the immigration system needs to be stricter, Wilson said. “Immigration as an issue is a winner for Republicans when we make it about security and crime.”
A Reuters-Ipsos poll in July found that immigration was the top concern among Republican voters, with 26 percent saying the issue would most likely determine their vote in the midterms, compared with just 7 percent of Democrats.
Just a few months ago, Democrats were eager to engage in the immigration debate, confident that Trump’s policies — including efforts to separate immigrant families at the border — were widely unpopular.
On Wednesday, 19 Democratic senators signed a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen demanding that she reverse several measures. “This Administration’s anti-immigrant policies have provoked the worst immigration crisis in modern times, and under your leadership it grows worse by the day,” they wrote.
But Trump seized the offensive in late June after a small number of high-profile Democrats proposed abolishing ICE, a movement championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who scored a surprise primary victory over Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.).
Even though Democratic leaders have sought to temper such calls, Trump has aimed to broadly tie his rivals to the “abolish ICE” position. Trump held a White House event on Monday to honor ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and he posted a video Wednesday accusing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of wanting to terminate the agency, even though she has not endorsed doing so.
GOP candidates have also produced video ads praising Border Patrol agents and warning of MS-13 even in states where the gang has no presence.
In the Senate, McConnell has told allies that he believes the issue is a winner in states including West Virginia, North Dakota and Indiana. McConnell was struck by how many Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), backed calls to abolish ICE, according to a person familiar with his thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
The immigrant-rights activists who confronted McConnell and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, in June also convinced him that the issue could put centrist Democrats in the position of having to defend the far left’s tactics, the person said.
In Arizona, Rep. Martha McSally (R), who is running for the Senate, is already trying to tie the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, to a liberal immigration platform.
“It’s extreme and it’s dangerous,” McSally said in an interview. “Whether you’re a Democrat, independent or Republican, you do not want opioids and gang members and the public safety threat that comes from the agenda coming out of the left right now.”
A Sinema spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Top Democrats have privately acknowledged that the debate over ICE has divided the party and several predicted that the White House will roll out additional hard-line enforcement actions this fall. Trump has also threatened to force a partial government shutdown over funding for a border wall in the budget fight with Congress next month.
“It’s a combination of them deflecting accountability and knowing their policies are failing Americans and therefore they’re going to lean into the culture wars,” said Lorella Praeli, a former aide to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign who now serves as immigration policy director at the ACLU. “I do think there is, for them, almost this feeling they can’t win without it.”
On Tuesday, a day after the president honored agents at the White House, ICE agents made a dramatic deportation arrest of a 95-year-old former Nazi guard more than a decade after his U.S. citizenship had been revoked. The Republican National Committee promptly blasted out an email noting the operation was in the jurisdiction where Ocasio-Cortez is campaigning and highlighting her position on ICE.
“Many Democrats are afraid to have this become a litmus test,” said R.J. Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower immigration levels. “Republicans in this situation can galvanize and whip up voters by saying, ‘Look what the other side wants to do.’”