What a difference a national immigration crisis makes. Republicans across the country are defying the RNC’s post-2012 dictum that GOP candidates must soften their tone on illegal immigration and line up behind comprehensive immigration reform in order to attract support from the Hispanic community.
And it’s working for many of them. It may even be the key ingredient in a Republican Senate takeover if the issue motivates turnout among the party’s base.
Just look at Scott Brown, the moderate former Massachusetts senator and New Hampshire Senate hopeful, who has made immigration a hallmark of his campaign against Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen. In September, Brown told talk-radio host Laura Ingraham, “This race is about immigration.” In July, he released his first ad chastising the “pro-amnesty policies” of Shaheen, who supported the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” bill, and he has flooded the airwaves with ads since. He has given speeches saying immigration is a national-security challenge above all else and written to Shaheen stressing the need to secure the border as a national-security imperative.
Republicans say Brown’s stance has boosted him in the polls. “The key for Scott Brown on this issue was the southern-border crisis and all of these different crises between ISIS, the southern border, Ebola, et cetera; all of a sudden it becomes more about national security,” says GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. Since July, Shaheen’s lead has slipped from double digits to just five points, according to RealClearPolitics, and a Brown spokeswoman tells NRO that’s in part because the issue of immigration has hit close to home. New Hampshire residents have seen neighboring Massachusetts struggle to respond to the influx of Central Americans into their communities, the spokeswoman says, and wonder whether their state will face similar problems.
At a recent meeting with veterans, the spokeswoman says, Brown held an open question-and-answer session where the audience could ask about anything, and the majority of questions were on immigration.
This is not how the RNC saw it playing out. After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the committee assembled a team that produced a postmortem report imploring Republicans to change their tune on immigration. “Among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the report said. “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
That point of view was almost universally held by the consultant class but proved toxic to Republican primary voters. That position resulted in the most well-known political casualty of the 2014 primary season when little-known professor David Brat knocked off then–House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia.
Cantor wasn’t the only Republican sunk by his stance on immigration. Georgia congressman Jack Kingston also lost his primary runoff to businessman and political neophyte David Perdue in the race to replace retiring Republican senator Saxby Chambliss in Georgia after Perdue honed in on the issue of illegal immigration. Perdue labeled Kingston “pro-amnesty” and highlighted the pro-amnesty positions of Kingston’s financial supporters in an ad in July.
Perdue has continued to focus on immigration in his general-election race against Democrat Michelle Nunn. The Perdue campaign says the immigration issue has national-security and economic components, which is why Perdue has continued to talk about it. “I think that’s something that’s always on the top of minds of voters, but it’s become more apparent because of the news of the day and things that are happening around the world,” a Perdue spokeswoman says. “People see what’s happening around the world and the potential threats that could happen anytime here at home and really understand that that’s why we need to secure our borders.”
Republican representative Tom Cotton, the Republican Senate candidate in Arkansas, has long opposed amnesty, and he is pounding away at the issue on the campaign trail. He has said the only time as a private citizen he ever wrote to his congressional representatives was to ask the man he is now challenging for a Senate seat, incumbent Mark Pryor (D., Ark.), to oppose the 2007 amnesty bill. That bill failed, but when the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill reached a vote in 2013, Pryor’s vote helped it pass. (It did not pass the House.) Now Cotton, too, is looking to capitalize. “You paid into Social Security, you counted on it being there for you, but liberals in Washington want to let illegal immigrants get Social Security for work they did with forged identities,” one ad says. “On illegal immigration, Mark Pryor never takes your side.”
A similar dynamic is playing out in the Bayou State as well. Aside from more personal controversies involving Senator Mary Landrieu’s residency status and her improper use of taxpayer money for flights to fundraising events over the course of multiple decades, immigration could be the toughest issue for her. The size of Louisiana’s Hispanic population is smaller than the nation’s Hispanic population, and the border crisis’s impact in Louisiana did not end when the influx of Central Americans at the border slowed. The cost of educating illegal immigrants in Louisiana schools will be nearly $7 million, according to Louisiana senator David Vitter, the Republican who chairs the Senate’s Border Security Caucus. Landrieu, who voted for the Gang of Eight bill, has sought to distance herself from the president on immigration and released a statement saying that she opposes executive action on immigration.
Her opponent, Republican representative Bill Cassidy, has released ads targeting Landrieu’s record, including ones that show Cassidy appearing next to the words: “Landrieu voted to give money to illegals.” He has also talked up legislation he supported with Vitter to hasten the removal of unaccompanied alien children who crossed the border earlier this summer.
Louisiana is strategically important in the immigration debate because President Obama is reportedly postponing any executive action amnestying millions of illegal immigrants until after the likely Louisiana runoff in December. But the Cassidy campaign says Louisiana voters will recognize the president’s decision as purely political. “Regardless of whenever it happens, people are seeing it,” a Cassidy spokesman says. “I really think people are starting to see Senator Landrieu as a rubber stamp for the president’s immigration policies and regardless of when he makes that decision, she’s going to support him.”
The GOP candidates in races in Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and elsewhere have all voiced their opposition to the potential executive action. And some desperate Democrats have sought to strike a more populist tone on immigration by talking tough about border security. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, has run an ad attacking McConnell for supporting a bill that amnestied millions of illegal immigrants in 1986. “I’m Alison Lundergan Grimes, and I approve this message because I’ve never supported amnesty or benefits for illegal immigrants and I never will,” she says at the end of the ad.
In Colorado, where the Republican nominee, Representative Cory Gardner, is running neck-and-neck with his Democratic opponent, Senator Mark Udall, the debate has been scrambled. Gardner — who has backed a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants — attacked Udall for his inaction on the immigration issue at a debate last week, while Udall — who supported the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill — slammed Gardner for supporting “de facto amnesty.” Republican National Committee spokesman Raffi Williams tells NRO the GOP does not support amnesty for illegal immigrants. “We’ve never promoted amnesty,” Williams says. “The chairman has quotes on the record being like, “Look, no amnesty, border security first.” And we always had that position.”
Gardner’s position and rhetoric on immigration can be traced to simple demographics. The Pew Research Center found Latinos made up 8.4 percent of the national electorate in 2012, but a June 2014 Latino Decisions report said Hispanics make up 14 percent of the eligible electorate in Colorado. In 2016, some Republican strategists say, the nationwide electorate may resemble Colorado, especially in key swing states with large Hispanic populations. But for now, the GOP is thriving with a populist message on immigration anathema to the party’s political establishment.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.
— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.