July 12, 2014, 05:47 pm
by Alexandra Jaffe
The Hill

There's no easy solution for Senate candidates trying to tackle the immigration crisis at the border and its looming $3.7 billion price tag.

And for both parties, the worsening humanitarian concern has shifted them away from a message on the economy and spending that the GOP had hoped was their upper-hand this election cycle.

Democrats are quick to point fingers at the GOP for blocking immigration reform proposals last year. And the optics of leaving kids languishing at the border — or worse, forcing them back into dangerous situations in their home countries — are particularly damaging as Democrats try to paint the party as indifferent to average voters’ concerns.

Even some Republicans caution against this approach. Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said the GOP’s push for immediate deportations hasn’t been playing well with Hispanics.

“To allow immigration officials to remove kids immediately, that really sounds heartless to many within the Hispanic community,” he said.

“From a policy perspective it’s bad, in terms of optics, it’s just terrible. From the Hispanic community, the rhetoric coming out from most Republicans is just awful. That’s their condition for supporting the supplemental?”

But Republicans believe their trump card, aside from the price alone, is that in last summer's negotiations, they shouted that any reform had to include border security measures first before a pathway to legalization was tackled. Now, they believe they've been proven right.

“The crisis brought [the immigration reform debate] back from a rhetorical debate,” said one national Republican involved in House races. “Now we’re actually talking about border security, which is not something the Democrats want to talk about. I actually think the discussion on this whole thing has shifted in a way that is more politically beneficial to Republicans.”

The GOP argues the border crisis is further evidence of the incompetence of the Obama administration, which they believe will drag down Democrats, particularly in red states where the president is deeply unpopular. In those states with the most competitive Senate races, incumbent senators are already fighting against the unpopularity of the president for their survival and to keep the Senate.

Republicans are already hitting on that angle, pointing to the fact that Obama didn’t visit the border when he was down in Texas to address the crisis as evidence of his incompetency.

Colorado Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who is challenging Sen. Mark Udall (D), accused Obama of “failing to lead.”

“It’s obviously a humanitarian and immigration crisis, but this just shows we need to look at ways to secure our border,” Gardner said.

Of all the states in play this cycle, Colorado’s are perhaps most reliant on Hispanic voters, so both Gardner and Udall are in a tough spot on the issue.

Udall supported the president’s request for supplemental funding to deal with the border and immigrant crisis.

"House Republicans have refused to act so far on bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform or to embrace common-sense budgeting ideas I have championed to protect Colorado communities from the threat of catastrophic wildfire. The crisis on the border and the ongoing wildfire season underscore the need for Congress to set politics aside and ensure the federal government has the tools it needs to protect public safety and work toward solutions,” he said in a statement.

In backing Obama, however, Udall could risk alienating Hispanics and immigration reform activists unhappy with what they see as too-harsh enforcement measures in the bill. Jim Manley, a former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), noted the measure puts Democrats in a difficult spot, torn between different constituencies.

“Many Democrats are still struggling to try and figure out how to handle this situation — especially since there’s only a couple weeks before Congress goes into recess for the month of August,” he said.

“The president’s going to have to thread the needle very carefully if he wants to get this done,” Manley added. “Many Democrats have serious concerns about doing much more than providing emergency funding to the situation at the border.”

Not only do Democrats have to worry about distancing themselves from what Republicans have portrayed as Obama’s incompetence, they have to be wary of alienating Hispanics and progressives, and centrists and moderates concerned with the $3.7 billion price tag and the idea of giving the president a blank check.

That’s why red-state Democrats are doing the most delicate dance on the issue. Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, asked three different times by reporters, wouldn’t directly answer whether she’d support Obama’s proposal and only emphasized the need for immigration reform.

Asked for clarification, campaign manager Jonathan Hurst said that her position on the crisis is “that this situation highlights the fact that Washington has continued to fail to pass comprehensive immigration reform.” But he also said she opposes the measure without a clear plan, similar to what many Republicans have said.

“In the short term, we should take steps to protect the innocent children and crack down on the illegal criminal organizations that profit off the trafficking of these children,” Hurst added.

"Alison believes that no money should be authorized by Congress until there is a clear plan that outlines how these funds will be used to fully protect the children and secure the border."

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), facing a difficult reelection fight, sounded a similar note, aggressively questioning officials at a hearing on the crisis and repeatedly urging clearer details and accountability for the proposal.

“I want to support something with one agency in charge that has budgetary authority and is responsible for setting performance metrics and deadlines to achieve results,” Landrieu said in a statement. “If we don’t draw clear lines of authority before we approve the $3.7 billion emergency supplemental appropriations, we run the risk of just disbursing these funds without any accountability for how they are used.”

Currently both parties are largely keeping their powder dry, wary of messaging on the measure when it’s still unclear how the final debate will play out.

But the crisis has, at least, muddied the message for Democrats on an issue that the party once considered a clear winner for them — Republican inaction on immigration reform. One national Democrat involved in Senate races said the party is wary of pivoting to an issue that has unclear, and potentially detrimental, impacts.

“We’re a year later. A lot of these races are a lot more defined, so I think candidates are going to be a lot more cautious in shifting their messages,” the Democrat said.