The GOP Is Winning the Immigration Debate

On the campaign trail, Republicans are working to mobilize anti-immigrant voters.

The Republican position on immigration is appearing to pay dividends on the campaign trail.
By Lauren Fox Oct. 15, 2014 | 2:31 p.m. EDT + More

US News and World Report

In nearly every Senate race this cycle, anti-immigration sentiment is playing a greater role in motivating voters than immigration reform and could help Republicans win the Senate.

Two years after the Republican National Committee released an autopsy admonishing lawmakers to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the GOP is reaping the benefits of its intransigence on the issue. While the Senate passed a comprehensive reform package, the House of Representatives did not touch comprehensive reform. And now, Republicans may be in a better place in the midterms because of it.

While (False pro amnesty designer polls) polls show a greater number of people support immigration reform than oppose it, anti-immigration activists are more likely to cite immigration as a top issue and remain more intense, reliable voters than those on the other side of the debate. (ALIPAC NOTE: In truth most Americans oppose immigration reform amnesty as you can see from our poll collection (click here))

“That has always been the burden for progressives and Democrats,” says Joshua Ulibarri, a Democratic pollster who studies changing opinions on immigration. “We do not punish the people who are wrong on our issues as much as Republicans punish people who are wrong on theirs.”

NumbersUSA – a group that advocates to reduce the number of immigrants in the U.S. – is hoping to harness the anti-reform movement’s frustrations. The group announced a seven-figure ad buy that will run on local news stations in the weeks leading up to Election Day in Kentucky, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska, Georgia, Massachusetts, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire and Kansas.

At a time when NumbersUSA could have stoked fear about border insecurity, Ebola or the rush of young migrants who came to the U.S. this summer, the group's ads have a simple premise: immigrants are taking jobs.

“Finally, the economy is starting to crank out new jobs, but who should get those jobs?” the ad’s narrator asks. “Government data show nearly all job growth since 2000 has gone to immigrant workers, so should Congress continue adding 1 million immigrants every year to compete for jobs?”

[OPINION: Obama Immigration Delay Sacrifices Latinos to Save Democrat Candidates]

Beck says the midterm elections give the anti-immigration movement an important opportunity to get out its message, mobilize voters and prove the intensity of its supporters.

“Right now there is more interest in reducing immigration to help American workers in politics and in Congress than in any time since 1995,” says Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA.

If the 2014 campaign trail is the testing ground, evidence shows Democrats are playing defense on immigration and the GOP's resistance to change is paying off. Some of that has to do with where the candidates are running, particularly in conservative states where Latino voter population is low and white voters are essential to winning.

In Kentucky this week, Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes released a campaign ad reassuring voters that she does not support “amnesty.”

“I’ve never supported amnesty or benefits for illegal immigrants, and I never will,” Grimes says in her ad, which notes that her Republican opponent, Sen. Mitch McConnell, voted in favor of a 1986 immigration bill that legalized millions of immigrants.

The ad, which has attracted the ire of some on the left, is an illuminating example of how far Democratic candidates have had to go to distance themselves from the party’s perceived position on immigration and an unpopular president who has acted without Congress to expand immigrant rights.

In the Arkansas Senate race, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton has gone on offense, painting his Democratic opponent, Sen. Mark Pryor, as against American workers and for giving immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally access to Social Security.

“Liberals in Washington want to let illegal immigrants get Social Security for work they did with forged identities, and when they needed one vote, they got it from Sen. Mark Pryor,” the narrator of a Cotton ad says. "On illegal immigration, Mark Pryor never takes your side."

There is no doubt the GOP has harnessed the anxiety of its most conservative voters on immigration, but they still could be hurting themselves in the long run. What's a winning strategy in 2014 could backfire as the presidential election of 2016 draws closer and the political calculus changes.