Democrats lean into border security as it shapes contest for control of Congress

WASHINGTON — With immigration set to determine the elections that will determine control of Congress, Democrats are trying to outflank Republicans and convince voters that they can address the problems at the U.S. border with Mexico, embracing an issue that has traditionally been against them is used.

The shift in strategy, especially from Democrats active in battleground states, comes as the Biden administration has struggled to manage an unprecedented influx of migrants at the southwest border. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has led his party in vilifying immigrants as “poisoning the blood” of the country and calling for mass deportations of migrants. And as the Republican Party looks to wrest control of the Senate, they are tying Democrats to President Joe Biden’s handling of immigration.

The tactic has already played a major role in elections such as the Senate race in Arizona, a seat that Democrats almost certainly need to win to save their majority. Republican Kari Lake has defeated Rep. Ruben Gallego, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has repeatedly been linked to Biden, telling the crowd at an event in March that “there’s really no difference between the two.”

Democrats are no longer dismissive of such attacks: They believe they can tout their own proposals for fixing the border, especially after Trump and Republican lawmakers rejected a bipartisan proposal on border security earlier this year.

“It gives some Democrats an opportunity to say, ‘Look, I’m here for solutions,’” ​​Gallego said. “It’s clear that Republicans are here to play games. And so whether it’s Kari Lake or Donald Trump, they’re not interested in border security. They are interested in the politics of border security. And we are here to actually do something about it.”

During most of his five terms in the House of Representatives, Gallego had been a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but as he prepared to run for the Senate, he quietly left the group. Now he’s highlighting his work in strengthening the ranks of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and securing funding for communities affected by recent spikes in immigration, which he calls a “crisis.”

Gallego stood before the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona last month and blasted the GOP for blocking the bipartisan border bill.

“Every minute we wait means more fentanyl deaths, more strain on our first responders and the looming possibility of street releases — something no small community wants,” he said.

Just two states away, Democrats hope to boost their chances of retaining the Senate by accomplishing a difficult feat: turning Texas blue, at least in one race. Some see an opportunity to flip a long-held Republican seat by pitting Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, against Sen. Ted Cruz.

Allred has emphasized his connection to border communities on the campaign trail, recounting visits as a child to Brownsville, Texas, where his grandfather worked as a customs agent.

“Our border communities are not just a political backdrop, not just places you go to raise issues,” he said at a news conference last month. “They’re places where real people live, where they’re trying to raise their families.”

Both Allred and Gallego have joined a House task force focused on border security. Some Senate Democrats have also recently passed legislation aimed at immigration enforcement. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has launched ads criticizing GOP senators for opposing the bipartisan Senate deal.

It’s all part of a strategy to neutralize the Republican Party’s advantage in this area by convincing swing voters that Democrats are taking border policy seriously.

“The Democrats aren’t going to win on immigration this year, but they need to get closer to a tie on the issue to get to a point where people take them seriously,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president at Third Way , a centrist democratic think tank. “Be so digestible on that topic that people are then willing to consider other priorities.”

Still, Democrats face a difficult task when it comes to the politics of border security. A new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that nearly half of adults blame Biden and Democrats in Congress for the current situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, while 41% blames Republicans in Congress.

Republicans are also using virtually every tool in Congress to denounce Biden’s handling of the southern border. They are pushing Democrats to take a hard line on border security measures and demanding policy changes in exchange for aid to Ukraine. And the House of Representatives impeached Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in February over his handling of the southern border.

“The reason you see Democrats talking about the border is because they have a political crisis, not because they are trying to solve the border crisis,” said Sen. Steve Daines, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “If they really want to solve the border crisis, President Biden can return to the Oval Office with the stroke of a pen and make significant progress in solving this problem. But he chooses not to.”

Daines visited Arizona this week as part of an effort to boost Lake, a staunch Trump supporter who has insisted she lost the 2022 race for governor because of fraud. Republicans lost several Senate elections in 2022, including in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Nevada, after Trump-backed candidates struggled to raise money and connect with a broader, more moderate audience during the general election.

This year, as Republicans try to win Senate seats in West Virginia, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, they are uniting around changes in border policy. They also bring up previous comments and votes from Gallego and Allred, as well as vulnerable senators.

In Texas, a political action committee aligned with Cruz has launched an ad attacking Allred for calling the border wall “racist” in 2018. And according to an analysis by media tracking firm AdImpact, more than $26 million was spent on TV ads covering the border and immigration in federal and down-ballot races in Texas, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio in February by candidates, political groups and other groups.

Still, Democrats on Capitol Hill have all opposed Republican legislation that would roll back many of the Trump administration’s border policies, including resuming border wall construction.

“You’re going to be portrayed as an open-border Democrat anyway, so talk about solutions,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist.

She urged the candidates to weigh in on the immigration debate by discussing border security plans and policies to help immigrants who have built a life in the country. It’s an approach that worked under former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, she said.

Still, the shift in how Democrats talk about the border could shape the future of immigration policy. The Trump administration’s tough immigration measures have led to a backlash from Democrats to oppose tough immigration enforcement measures. Now some Democrats are arguing that the party should move away from the position that border security and legal immigration reforms should not be inextricably linked. But that approach could also disenchant progressive and Latino voters.

“As we look to the future, I hope Democrats see that despite all the noise we see across the border, people actually care about the path to citizenship for immigrants who have lived here for many years,” said Beatriz Lopez, the vice president of the US. director of The Immigration Hub.

Most Democrats, including Gallego and Allred, still express support for these types of immigration reforms. But what’s different is that Democrats also see the need to talk about their border policy proposals, said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas.

“Republicans have had a narrative for so long that the border is a dangerous place and out of control,” said Cuellar, who heads the group House Democrats for Border Security. “I think it’s important that Democrats also have a story about border security. We care about border security.”