Despite protestations to the contrary, immigration will play a major role in the midterm. Just look at the preliminary evidence. House Republicans were so concerned about doing nothing on the issue they stayed a day extra after failing to pass a supplemental funding bill. Democrats, believing they had a winning issue hammered Republicans for changing DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Further, the Republicans who voted against the bill changing DACA (all eleven of them) hail from states or districts with large Hispanic populations.
At this point last year nobody thought that immigration would be a major issue in the midterm. The economy was sputtering, Obamacare was a disaster and the President was beset ( and still is) by scandals. Yet, a new Gallup survey finds immigration is now the most important issue to voters followed by dissatisfaction with government and the economy.
The flood of immigrants crossing the border has caused border state executives and Congressional Republicans to urge the President to take action. This action has been minimal at best. Since the failure of Comprehensive Reform last year the White House has done nothing but threaten to take executive action to deal with the issue. Unsurprisingly, this has raised the ire of Republicans who already did not trust the President. Thus, when the President wanted $3.7 billion to deal with the border the Senate only offered $2.7 billion and the House $654 million.
A slate of polls since May have shown an increasingly divided public. A CBS News poll in May found 56% of voters said securing the border was more important than dealing with illegal immigrants and yet a solid plurality said that illegals in the country should be allowed to apply for citizenship. In June, a Gallup survey found 63% of voters viewed immigration as a good thing compared to 33% who said the opposite but 41% also said immigration should be decreased. A recent WashPo/ABC survey found only 33% approved of the President’s handling of the border but 53% supported his funding request.
Republicans and Democrats have differing interpretations of how immigration will play in the midterm (and the above polls meanings) Democrats believe the GOP’s harsh rhetoric and actions on the issue will alienate swing voters and galvanize Hispanic turnout. But Republicans counter that voters care more about securing the border and creating jobs.
The conventional wisdom has held that immigration is political kryptonite for the GOP, especially in Presidential elections. The party is divided on the issue, hardliners alienate the growing electoral bloc and they continue to struggle to reach out to the Hispanics.
But conventional wisdom is not always true. Democrats are divided on the issue as well. This was captured in possible 2016 Democratic Presidential nominee and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley criticizing the White House for speeding up the deportation process. Another scenario captures the divide. Texas Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar has turned against Obama for being negligent on the issue. Cuellar seems to reflect a growing divide among Hispanics on the issue. Squeezed from the left and middle the President has waffled.
In the key Senate battlegrounds of Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire a narrow plurality either opposes or supports citizenship (but a time-frame is not asked). Only in Colorado do a majority (55%) support citizenship. Taken together the internal schisms within the party, progressive push for liberal action on the issue and a divided public show why the White House is waffling.
Waffling is unlikely to keep an angry GOP base from showing up to vote in November or galvanize the left. That is where Democrats running in red states could be hurt the most. Even if one assumes Hispanics will largely support Democrats this cycle (they probably will) their share of the electorate is likely to be small in conservative states that feature competitive Senate races (AK, AR,, LA, NC). Further, Harry Reid’s refusal to allow the Senate to consider action on the House’s or President’s plan means red state Senators cannot alleviate conservative anger with their votes.
This is where immigration will matter. The Republican base is fired up and rearing to go. But Democrats might also see Hispanic turnout drop and in a key state like Colorado that could matter. A Fox News poll found that among Hispanics only 30% believed Democrats wanted to help them while 42% said it was just for votes. Such a large level of cynicism does not usually equate to strong support at the ballot box. Immigration will matter this cycle but not in the ways people may think. The divided public, partisan animosity it drives and cynicism in government it feeds will impact votes this November.