Wrenching scenes of migrant children being separated from their parents at the southern border are roiling campaigns ahead of midterm elections, emboldening Democrats on the often-fraught issue of immigration while forcing an increasing number of Republicans to break from President Donald Trump on an issue important to the GOP’s most ardent supporters.
Kim Schrier, a Democrat running for a House seat outside of Seattle, said Trump is pushing an “absolutely unethical, inhumane” policy.
“We are talking about American values, not Democratic values or Republican values, and this is something that will flip people to a Democrat in this election,” Schrier said.
That prospect was enough for House Republicans’ national campaign chairman, Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, to offer cover Monday to vulnerable GOP members. Stivers said in a statement that he’s asking “the administration to stop needlessly separating children from their parents” and suggested he’d examine legislative options if Trump doesn’t budge.
Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, whose suburban Denver district is often a battleground, took the cover Stivers provided. He didn’t mention Trump, but said the border policy “is antithetical to the America I grew up in.” He said he’s willing to co-sponsor a House version of a Senate proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would halt the family separations, and he echoed claims Democrats had made for days: “History won’t remember well those who support the continuation of this policy.”
Democrat Jason Crow, a leading candidate to unseat Coffman, said the congressman can’t run from his previous support for “zero-tolerance” border security. “This is what that looks like,” Crow said, adding that as “an American and as a father” he finds the border situation “immoral.”
With control of the House — and potentially the Senate — up for grabs, the searing images coming from the border have the potential to scramble midterm politics. Though controversy has dominated Trump’s presidency, the growing furor over the separations struck a deeply emotional chord in both parties that may not calm anytime soon — even in districts that don’t have large immigrant or Hispanic populations.
Pennsylvania’s Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, another vulnerable Republican, said he plans to visit the border “to see what’s going on down there with my own eyes.” He called the detainees “our planet’s children” and said they shouldn’t be punished “for things that their parents do or don’t do.”
The political reverberations from the separations could last well beyond the midterms. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a potential 2020 presidential candidate, said Monday that Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen should resign.
Trump along with most Republicans have long believed that they have held the upper hand on immigration. While Democrats have argued that most Americans support granting a path to citizenship for children who were brought to the U.S. illegally, the Republican base is fervently opposed to such measures — and votes accordingly. That’s why some political observers say this moment is so unique.
“It’s been tough for Democrats to bring the issue of compassion out on a national scale” when talking about immigration, said James Aldrete, a Democratic campaign consultant in Texas. But now, Aldrete said, “Trump has done it for us.”
Democrats are hoping the issue will encourage more Latino voters to show up on Election Day, while also providing an opening for non-Hispanic independents in other swing districts.
At the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, spokesman Tyler Law said candidates can now frame “a potent issue” by “being authentic and talking about your own families, your own children.”
Democrats also are buoyed by Trump drawing criticism from typically GOP friendly territory: the religious community. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which often wades into politics with its opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage, has decried the administration, as have mainline Protestant churches, the Mormon Church and evangelical leaders.
At least one Democrat running in a conservative-leaning House district in North Carolina combined Law’s advice with the words of another Republican critic: former first lady Laura Bush. “As a young parent, I can’t imagine the thought of my children being taken away from me, into the hands of strangers who aren’t allowed to comfort my crying toddler,” Dan McCready posted on his Facebook page alongside an op-ed that Mrs. Bush penned for the Washington Post.
In a Texas district that includes about a third of the southern border, Democratic candidate Gina Ortiz Jones hasn’t had to be timid. She talked about immigration before family separation came to the forefront. But she said the matter allows her to highlight the priorities of the Republican administration and Congress, even as her opponent, Republican Rep. Will Hurd, also decries the Trump administration policy.
“What we are seeing is a pattern of using children as political pawns,” she said, referring to Republican maneuvering on health care before approving funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the GOP’s failure to secure any kind of fix for the young “Dreamer” immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
“We can’t have folks doing the right thing only when they realize they are in a vulnerable seat,” she said.
Still, Democratic pollster Paul Maslin offered a caveat to members of his party sensing a new opening: the public’s short attention span. “In Trump world, the stories change daily, if not hourly,” he said. “It was North Korea just last week. Immigration this week. Next week, who knows? Round and round we go.”