Posted on October 15, 2018

G.O.P. Finds an Unexpectedly Potent Line of Attack: Immigration

Julie Hirschfeld Davis, New York Times, October 14, 2018


But Republican candidates across the country, leaning on the scorched-earth campaign playbook employed by President Trump, saw an opening nonetheless, painting Democrats as the ones pursuing an extreme immigration agenda that would fill the country with “sanctuary cities” where violent criminals roam free.

The strategy, in play in a growing number of races, may be working. As a tight battle for control of Congress enters its closing weeks, Democrats have found that in politically competitive states, particularly ones that Mr. Trump carried in 2016, the attacks can easily turn crucial voting blocs against Democrats.

“Sanctuary attacks pack a punch,” says a four-page memorandum, prepared by the liberal Center for American Progress and the centrist think tank Third Way, that has been shared at about a dozen briefings for Democrats in recent weeks. {snip}

Many of the Republican attacks use misleading language and employ overblown claims about the dangers of immigrants. But the fear-based appeal demonstrates how Mr. Trump has overcome months of negative headlines about his hard-edge immigration policies to make the issue a potentially profitable one as Republicans try to preserve their slim Senate majority and defy projections that they will lose the House.

Democrats, the strategists who prepared the memo advised, could neutralize the attacks if they responded head-on. But they should spend “as little time as possible” talking about immigration itself, and instead pivot to more fruitful issues for Democrats like health care and taxation.


“It is very difficult to win on immigration with vulnerable voters in the states Trump carried in 2016,” the strategy memo said, arguing that “even the most draconian of Republican policies,” such as family separation and threats to deport the Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children — failed to sway most of them.

But where Democrats see caution signs, Republicans see opportunities. Matt Gorman, the communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s House campaign arm, said immigration themes — “sanctuary cities” in particular, as well as liberal calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement — were among voters’ top concerns in some places where Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and where Republicans are now battling to hang on to competitive seats.


“Every day, sanctuary cities are unleashing vicious predators and bloodthirsty killers, like MS-13, into our communities,” Mr. Trump said in Southaven, Miss., referring to the brutal transnational gang with roots in Central America. “They go out and they hide out in sanctuary cities. Then they come into our cities and our towns.”

But Republicans’ dark warnings have their limits and risks, including the potential to alienate some women who recoil from the hardest-edge, most racially charged attacks. And the researchers found that they do not resonate with white, college-educated voters.

In Democratic-leaning states, immigration is a perilous issue for Republicans, as Democrats work to tie them to the Trump administration’s restrictive policies in general and the family separation crisis in particular. But in competitive districts and states, it can be particularly potent with groups that Democrats must win if they are to have a shot at wresting control of the House or the Senate: voters without a college education, older women and independent voters.


Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group, is advising Democrats to stick to practical concerns that directly affect voters’ daily lives.


That tough Republican talk can be heard in anti-immigration messages around the country. On Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee released an ad in which a frightened-looking white woman locks the windows and doors and lowers the blinds in her darkened house as police lights flash outside and she criticizes the immigration record of Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democratic former representative now running for another seat in Arizona. “We, who live here, are forgotten,” the woman says, invoking language Mr. Trump often uses to describe his supporters, “the forgotten men and women.”


In August, John Chrin, a Republican candidate in Pennsylvania, ran an advertisement branding his Democratic opponent, Representative Matt Cartwright, “a disgrace” for supporting “sanctuary cities.” The spot shows an image of a young girl playing hopscotch as the narrator tells the story of a 5-year-old girl raped by an undocumented immigrant who had been released from police custody in Philadelphia after charges of aggravated assault were dropped. ICE had requested that he be detained until he could be picked up for possible deportation.

In North Dakota, Representative Kevin Cramer, a Republican, has charged that Senator Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrat he is leading in the Senate race, supported federal funding for “sanctuary cities that ignore the rule of law and put our citizens and law enforcement officers at risk.”