GOP candidates focus on border security amid high migration

Republicans see an advantage on immigration, while Democrats have focused more on the economy and abortion

Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters speaks during his town hall event at Miss Kitty’s Steak House in July.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters speaks during his town hall event at Miss Kitty’s Steak House in July. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 2, 2022 at 4:55pm

Republican candidates have leaned into immigration in the 2022 midterm elections, with campaign ads displaying threatening images of the U.S.-Mexico border and pledges to enact legislation to complete former President Donald Trump’s border wall.

In a recent ad, Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters stands in front of border fencing and tells voters it’s time to “militarize the border” and “end this invasion,” as images of packaged drugs and crowds of migrants slide across the scene.

On a debate stage more than a thousand miles away from the border in Ohio, Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance pointed to Democratic opposition to increased border wall funding to slam his opponent, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan.

“His entire 20 years in Congress, he has been anti-border security, and now we are paying the consequences for it,” Vance said during a televised debate in October.

The tough-on-immigration refrains are not uncommon from Republicans, who backed Trump’s campaign pledge in 2016 to “Build the Wall” and pressed the immigration issue in the 2018 midterm elections.

But that push four years ago was widely panned as unsuccessful in a year that saw widespread public outrage over the Trump administration’s policy to separate migrant families who crossed the border together.

This year, the party is betting that after several years of high levels of migration to the border, the immigration focus may play better with voters who see the high border numbers as a worsening problem that needs to be fixed.

“Longstanding concerns over inadequate security measures at the border have been validated, and in fact, have intensified as a result of the Biden administration’s ineptitude,” Daniel Garza, president of the LIBRE Initiative, a conservative-leaning organization that represents Latinos, said.

“Americans are not confident this administration is working to resolve any of this, while Republicans seem to be the only party speaking to their concerns.”

Republican messaging

Analysts from both sides of the aisle say Republican messaging on border security has greatly outweighed any Democratic messaging on immigration policies, which focuses on creating more legal channels for entering the country and relief for undocumented immigrants.

America’s Voice, a left-leaning organization that tracks Republican political ads on immigration, has tracked 360 ads that target Democrats for “open border policies,” 330 ads that tie immigration issues to drug trafficking and more than 140 ads that use “invasion” and “replacement” rhetoric.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to get Republicans elected to the House, has sent out a daily “#BidenBorderCrisis” email since April 2021 that rebukes the Biden administration’s border policies and highlights data showing high migration levels. The group sent out its 386th dispatch on Wednesday.

“Republicans have tried over and over again to bring legislation to the floor to secure our southern border, and Democrats want nothing of it,” House GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said at a Capitol Hill press conference in September, shortly before House Republicans released a legislative agenda that included border security. “They don’t want to fix it. We will.”

House Republicans, at that announcement and elsewhere, have pointed to polling that shows Republican voters are more likely to cite immigration as a priority issue than Democratic voters.

When asked if “immigration at the southern border” is a “major crisis,” 69 percent of Republican voters said it was, compared with 25 percent of Democratic voters, according to progressive polling firm Navigator Research.

When asked about the top issues for congressional candidates to focus on, just 7 percent of Democratic voters put immigration in the top three, compared with 39 percent of Republicans, according to polling by progressive firm Data for Progress.

Data for Progress’ polling also shows that voters overall are more likely to say the Republican party would do a better job addressing immigration than the Democratic party would.

Meanwhile, Democratic voters are more likely to cite issues like gun control, abortion rights, climate change and inflation as priority topics, incentivizing Democratic candidates to spend more time on those issues.
“The window of persuadability really is on the economy,” Evangel Penumaka, lead analyst for Data for Progress, said.

Focusing messaging on countering inflation and lowering health care costs “is really the strategy Dems should be pursuing, rather than immigration,” Penumaka said.

‘Not leaning in’

Democratic candidates, particularly those running outside of border states, have largely avoided making immigration a key focus of their campaigns. Instead, they have mostly focused more on big-ticket topics like the economy and abortion that they see as more important to voters.

“We’re not hearing enough from Democrats, and Republicans are filling in the vacuum,” Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group, said.

The Biden administration came to office last year with promises to implement a humane and orderly system of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border and to push for legislation to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

But migration levels have remained high, with U.S. Border Patrol agents logging roughly 37 percent more encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal 2022 than during the prior year.

And efforts in Congress to pass legislation legalizing the undocumented population have continued to falter.

This has left Democrats with few immigration accomplishments to tout as a countermessage and offered Republicans a window to slam their opponents over border security.

The lack of a strong Democratic counter may make Republican attack ads on immigration more effective, said Todd Schulte, executive director at FWD.us, which advocates for changes to the immigration system.

“In the absence of accomplishments, we’re ripe for demagoguery,” Schulte said.

Some Democratic candidates have vocally supported recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as "Dreamers," who came to the country as children, and changes to other immigration programs on the campaign trail.

Sen. Mark Kelly, the Arizona Democrat running against Trump-backed Masters, called for “comprehensive immigration reform” during a recent debate.

“We have tens of thousands — tens of thousands — of Dreamers here in the state of Arizona that are as American as my own two kids,” Kelly said. “My opponent Blake Masters, on the other hand, he said he would never offer citizenship to Dreamers. I think it’s mean and it’s fundamentally un-American.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who faces a tough reelection battle, held a roundtable with DACA recipients last month.

And Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman said during a recent debate with Republican opponent Mehmet Oz that he believes a “secure border can be compatible with compassion.”

Fetterman’s wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, grew up undocumented after her family fled Brazil.

More Republican appeals

Republican messaging on immigration has also not been entirely limited to border security.

In Latino-heavy South Texas, Republican Rep. Mayra Flores, an immigrant from Mexico and wife of a Border Patrol agent, told reporters in September that it is “so important for me to focus on legal immigration and improving the legal process.”

A campaign ad for Flores to hold the seat she won in a special election earlier this year, pinned to her Twitter profile, called the migration challenges at the border a “humanitarian crisis” that is “heartbreaking” and focused on supporting Border Patrol agents.

Monica De La Cruz, another Republican running in south Texas, emphasized the “border crisis” and its effect on public resources but also told reporters that she supports a legislative solution for Dreamers.

“We all agree that those children came of no fault of their own, and that some type of legislative action needs to be put forth,” said De La Cruz.

Meanwhile, Democrats generally “are not leaning in,” Cárdenas, of immigrant advocacy group of America’s Voice, said. “For us, that is the problem. You cannot win an argument if you are not having it.”

Garza, of the conservative-leaning LIBRE Initiative, said he has “rarely” heard DACA discussed by Democrats on the campaign trail, for example. He credited the high border numbers with deterring Democrats from tackling the subject.

“Democrats are reticent to talk about immigration right now precisely because of the border crisis, and they just don’t want to draw attention to it,” Garza said.

Still, immigrant advocates stress the stakes of this election for immigration are high.

Ongoing legal challenges to DACA, which currently offers protections to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, means the program could be struck down in the coming years — potentially while Republicans control Congress.

“For almost a million people, DACA is on the ballot,” Cárdenas said. “They deserve to live without the fear of deportation. And this is such an important election to make sure that they get the relief and the solution that they need.”