A backlash over the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their parents at the southern border has left Republican candidates scrambling to distance themselves from a policy the president sees as central to accomplishing his political goals.
A shift in the dynamics of immigration politics, which President Trump has long used to his advantage and some Democrats have seen as a liability, was evident Monday as the face of the debate changed from violent Central American street gang members to young and bewildered children isolated by federal agents behind chain-link fences.
The reaction was a reminder that, for all the effort Trump is putting into maintaining the loyalty of his base, the voters who elected him are not the same ones many vulnerable Republicans will need to win over this fall.
In many cases, Republican fates will depend on attracting more moderate voters. The key group, because of the location of the most contested House races, will be suburban female voters.
On Monday, as Democrats in red states united with their more liberal colleagues in opposition to the president’s policy, Republicans sought to demonstrate their sympathies with the migrant border families.
“Let me be clear — I do not favor separating families,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican Senate candidate, said in a statement Monday.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), who is running for reelection in a state dominated by Democrats, announced Monday that he would reverse his decision to send his state’s National Guard troops to the southern border. He cited the “cruel and inhumane” actions of the Trump administration.
Rep. Kevin Yoder, a potentially vulnerable Kansas Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s homeland security subcommittee, on Monday sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking him to end the family separations, which Sessions had announced in speeches last month.
“As the son of a social worker, I know the human trauma that comes with children being separated from their parents,” he said in a statement.
Later Monday, conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) signaled that he would introduce a measure that he said would lessen the number of divided families. Rep. Steve Stivers (Ohio), head of the Republican congressional campaign effort, also called on the administration to halt its policy.
As surprising as the swift Republican reactions — at a time when support for Trump initiatives is key to political survival — was the concurrent Democratic unity. Several Democrats broke with their party to support funding Trump’s border wall in the spring, and earlier, a handful opposed a party move to deny government funding in order to push new legal protections for “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
But Monday, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who has been running an ad in the state boasting of his vote to fund Trump’s border wall, became the last to join a Democratic proposal to require families to be kept together. In a statement, he cast the issue as a moral one, saying he had come to his position “as a father, grandfather and Christian.”
A Quinnipiac poll released Monday found that American voters oppose the policy of separating children from parents by more than 3 to 1, with opposition from 91 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 35 percent of Republicans. The same poll showed that 58 percent of American voters oppose building a southern border wall — which Trump has demanded as part of any immigration measure — and 79 percent support a path to citizenship for dreamers.
For years, immigration has functioned as a base-mobilizing tool for both parties, as Democrats have sought to motivate liberals and Hispanics, and Republicans have tried to boost the working-class white vote.
But typically, Republicans have given the issue more weight. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump’s immigration focus allowed him to peel off white Democratic voters.
Polls this year show that Democratic voters are more enthusiastic about the midterm elections, and Democratic leaders believe that Trump’s immigration moves are an effort to increase Republican enthusiasm.
“This is red meat for his base,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Monday.
In the Quinnipiac poll, 70 percent of women — and 65 percent of white women, a more conservative cohort — opposed separating children from their migrant parents.
“They are tired of being forced into awkward conversations with their kids,” Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.), a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leadership, said between stops at detention centers in Texas. “When you talk about separating kids from their parents, that’s not going to break [Trump’s] way.”
The issue also creates problems for Republicans who represent large Hispanic constituencies, such as Reps. David Valadao (Calif.), Carlos Curbelo (Fla.) and Will Hurd (Tex.), all of whom face tough reelection races and have said they want to change the policy.
“There are two kinds of districts where this issue could flip additional seats: districts with enough Hispanics that a big increase in Hispanic turnout can flip the math and elect a Democrat, and the kind of high-education, moderate Republican seats that [Hillary] Clinton won and were already tough holds,” said Republican pollster Chris Wilson. “Anything that turns off suburban Republicans in those districts is a risky issue to face.”
In Nevada, Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s rival, Rep. Jacky Rosen, aired a Spanish-language television ad during the World Cup last weekend that showed a soccer referee giving a red card to Trump for his dirty game — “el juego sucio” — of separating mothers from children.
Heller has not commented publicly on child separation since telling the Reno Gazette Journal on June 1 that the administration had created a “terrible policy.” Some Republicans doubt that there are many voters left in the state who can be swayed.
“If you are extremely motivated by this issue, you are voting anyway,” said one Nevada Republican consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about the election. “There are just no persuadable voters on this issue.”
But Democrats plan to hammer Heller’s disagreement with Trump again this weekend, when the president is scheduled to travel to Las Vegas for a fundraiser for his campaign.
“Could you think of a worse time for Donald Trump to go to Nevada?” asked Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The head of the Democratic effort, Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, traveled to the Texas border last weekend to cast the debate as a moral failure for Trump and the Republican Party.
“I really think this is beyond politics,” Van Hollen said in an interview. Voters in both parties are “Americans first,” he said. “They are moms and dads, and they find it despicable that kids are being separated from parents as a deliberate policy choice.”
Van Hollen was part of a group of Democratic lawmakers who toured detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley over the weekend and provided detailed descriptions of their findings. They reconstructed scenes of confusion and distress, including a woman who expressed fear that she would never see her child again.
Democrats in what are expected to be tough races were calling attention to Trump’s political strategy, citing comments by White House officials that he is using the issue to strengthen his position in the larger immigration talks.
“The administration can & must change this cruel and harmful policy,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) tweeted over the weekend.
Another threatened Democrat campaigning in a state Trump won, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, tweeted that “those trying to enter our country illegally should be held accountable and we should fix our broken immigration system, but I don’t support the Admin.’s new policy that separates children from their families.”
Some Republicans say they still believe that the national focus on immigration will help the party in November, especially in states Trump won in 2016. “People want common-sense immigration reform. People don’t want open borders,” said Jim McLaughlin, a pollster working for an independent group supporting Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, who is running against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D).
Yet in a statement to The Washington Post, Hawley did not take a clear position on the Trump policy. Rather, he blamed McCaskill for the current state of immigration.
“Nobody wants to see children and parents separated, just like no one should want to see illegal drugs and gangs pouring across our border,” he said. “But none of that will change until McCaskill and the D.C. crowd take some responsibility and build the wall and secure the border.”
Sullivan reported from McAllen, Tex.