By Alex Leary
WASHINGTON—President Trump is elevating the issue of immigration, which drove his 2016 campaign, with the aim of animating Republican voters in a midterm election that threatens to derail his agenda if Democrats retake the House.
Mr. Trump’s latest comments came Thursday as he warned about an “onslaught” of migrants reaching the southern U.S. border with Mexico and threatened to deploy the military if the caravan isn’t stopped.
Accusing Democrats of wanting “open borders and existing weak laws,” Mr. Trump foreshadowed a message he is likely to carry into a Western campaign swing on Friday in Arizona, a hotbed for immigration issues.
Mr. Trump and Republicans are working to build on momentum tied to the confirmation fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “The president realizes he needs to keep that momentum going,” said Matt Moore, a GOP strategist in South Carolina and former chairman of the state party. “Illegal immigration animates the Republican Party base like few other issues.”
Democrats say the focus on immigration is backfiring by motivating progressives and independent voters.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that among Democrats, 26% say it is one of the single most important issues, compared with only 13% of Republicans who said the same. A September Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that, by a 61% to 28% margin, voters said immigration helps the U.S.
“He’s so polarized and racialized this debate that a lot of people for whom immigration was a secondary issue are really angry about what Trump is doing,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which seeks an overhaul of immigration policies. He cited the policy of separating families at the border as an example sparking anger.
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Democratic candidates, who shunned health care in campaigns eight years ago, are now focusing on it. Republicans are barely mentioning it.
Both sides aim to channel passions churned up by the battle over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh into getting supporters to the polls.
Democrats could win battlefield districts in just four states—Pennsylvania, California, Florida and New Jersey—and control the House.
Democrats are split on how far to push for change in health care, a dominant campaign issue.
President Trump has dragged the party in his direction, undercutting its traditional policy preferences, with his critics leaving and his favored candidates winning.
Strong growth lifts GOP candidates in some tight midterm races, but tariffs, taxes and local factors leave others vulnerable.
The GOP’s endangered incumbents this fall must find supporters who will vote for them even though they disapprove of the president.
The fight for the Senate is being fought on a deep red, pro-Trump battlefield. That helps explain Democrats’ long odds of erasing Republicans’ narrow margin.
House candidates are pushing a muscular firearms-regulation agenda, a wholesale repositioning on the hot-button issue.
At the same time, tougher immigration stances remain popular among Mr. Trump’s intended audience. A June Quinnipiac poll showed that while 66% of American voters oppose the family separation policy, Republican voters support it 55% to 35%. Voters in general oppose a border wall, the poll showed, but Republicans support it by 77%.
Immigration has bedeviled Republicans since Mr. Trump launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and demanding construction of a border wall. The GOP-controlled Senate and House this year rejected multiple immigration bills, including one backed by Mr. Trump that would have combined border-security funding with other measures sought by the Democrats.
On Thursday, White House chief of staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser John Bolton engaged in an “explosive” shouting match outside the Oval Office, according to people familiar with the matter. The argument was prompted by a recent report that said border crossings had increased in the past month, for which Mr. Bolton criticized Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, a Kelly ally, according to one of the people.
Mr. Trump’s emphasis on immigration also coincides with reports of the migrant caravan from Honduras working its way toward the U.S. southern border.
Later Thursday, Mr. Trump called on his supporters to focus on the plight of the southern border, dubbing the 2018 midterms “an election of the caravan.”
“As you know, I’m willing to send the military to defend the southern border if necessary,” he said at a rally in Missoula, Mont. He blamed “the illegal immigration onslaught brought on by the Democrats, because they refuse to change the laws.”
Mr. Trump suggested the Democrats do little to prevent the caravan and other immigrants from crossing the border because they “think that everyone coming in is going to vote Democrat.” He also warned of “hardened, bad people” crossing into the U.S., and told the crowd of Montana voters that it is up to them to reverse course.
The caravan is the latest in a steady flow of people fleeing violence in Latin America and seeking to call attention to the problem. A record number of asylum-seeking families have recently overwhelmed border agents and immigration authorities.
Border Patrol facilities are crowded with newly arrived families, bed space at family detention centers in Texas is at a premium, and immigration-court backlogs are growing. Unrelenting violence in the region was widely accepted as having sparked the first wave of roughly 70,000 immigrant families, and nearly as many unaccompanied children, in 2014. Those flows have fluctuated in recent years.
On the border wall, Mr. Trump had a message Thursday night for Congress: “Give us the money and we’ll do it fast.”
Despite Mr. Trump’s focus on the issue, it is barely registering in political advertising by GOP candidates. Less than 11% of all ads in Senate, House and governor races through Tuesday had an anti-immigration message, according to Kantar Media/CMAG, a political ad tracker. GOP candidates have been playing up tax cuts and the economy.
“He clearly views it as one of the reasons for his political success,” GOP pollster David Winston said of Mr. Trump’s focus on immigration. “But it’s still all about the economy and jobs.”
Mr. Trump’s messaging could help some GOP Senate candidates who need his base to show up on Election Day. Its impact on House races seems more unpredictable, as most of the competitive seats are in suburban districts where his family-separation policies drew opposition from suburban woman, while a focus on threats of higher crime may resonate with voters, polls show.
Immigration as an issue has gained steam in a number of key House and Senate races, with Republicans calling opponents weak on crime and highlighting some liberal demands to “abolish ICE,” the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, a vulnerable Republican who represents the Virginia suburbs of Washington, has played up the threat of the MS-13 gang. “Barbara Comstock is fighting for our families,” says an ad featuring TV news reports about the gang and highlighting bipartisan legislation she has sponsored.
Some vulnerable Democrats are using the issue as well. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D., Ind.) has run ads promoting his support for Mr. Trump on immigration, including building a border wall, while taking a shot at the “radical left” over calls to abolish ICE.
David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that the No. 1 issue remains health care, and that Mr. Trump’s emphasis on immigration could hurt some GOP candidates, such as Martha McSally, who is running for the Senate in Arizona, a state that continues to diversify and become more politically competitive.
“It shows just how desperate Republicans are to talk about everything except the way their health-care agenda hurts working families,” Mr. Bergstein said.
Even some Republican groups are concerned that Mr. Trump isn’t advocating solutions, such as protecting young people brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents and securing more funding for the border wall.
“Bringing up immigration as an issue for elections has been done for far too long by Republicans and Democrats. We need real action and real solutions,” said Wadi Gaitan, a spokesman for the LIBRE Initiative, a pro-immigration group funded by the conservative brothers Charles and David Koch.
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