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.
However, Trump signed an executive order Wednesday afternoon “about keeping families together while ensuring we have a powerful border.” He added that the U.S. will maintain a powerful border and have zero tolerance for illegal immigrants trying to enter the country.
Kim Schrier, a Democrat running for a House seat outside of Seattle, had earlier 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 (R-15th district), to offer cover Monday to vulnerable GOP members, prior to Trump’s executive order Wednesday.
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.
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.
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.”
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.