Republicans Gain With Amnesty Claim in Close Senate Races

Scott Brown catapulted his New Hampshire Senate campaign with an on-air offensive against “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants -- a strategy that he says explains why President Barack Obama delayed plans to ease deportations.

Brown, a Republican, was trailing Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen by 12 points in a July poll. Now, he’s down by just two after focusing most of his broadcast ads on what he calls Shaheen’s support for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S.

The Republican focus on the issue is being played out in other close contests this year, and it’s jeopardizing Democrats’ efforts to retain control of the U.S. Senate.

“Make no mistake: President Obama plans to grant amnesty; it’s just that he will cynically wait until after the election so as not to harm Senate Democrats like Jeanne Shaheen,” Brown said in a statement.

Obama has decided to delay action until the November midterm races are over, with the White House on Sept. 6 blaming “Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue.”

Advocates for changes to immigration law and Republicans both denounced the president’s move as politically driven. “Playing it safe might win an election,” Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week,” though it “almost never leads to fairness.”

“He wants to make sure and do it after the midterms when it won’t have consequence for him,” Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate who lost to Obama, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Galvanizing Base

For Democrats, Brown’s gains in New Hampshire are alarming, because the party has been favored to retain control of the Senate seat there.

Other Republican challengers in races the party needs to win to gain control of the Senate also began to adopt the “amnesty” theme because, they said, it was starting to work. Border and amnesty-themed ads have run in four of the nine closest elections, as well as in Kentucky, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee said today that Obama’s decision to delay makes the issue no less potent.

“The president and Senate Democrats are playing a cynical game, and by blatantly trying to deceive voters, they now add a contempt charge to the argument against executive amnesty,” spokesman Brad Dayspring said in a statement.

“It really galvanizes the Republican base,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the Cook Political Report, which rates seven of those nine races as tossups.

‘Third-Rail Issues’

In Arkansas, advertising on behalf of Representative Tom Cotton accuses Senator Mark Pryor, the Democratic incumbent, of allowing “illegal immigrants to collect Social Security credits” and highlights the “Obama-Pryor amnesty plan.” Cotton has erased earlier deficits and leads Pryor by five percentage points among likely voters, according to an NBC/Marist poll released yesterday.

Such messages join “two third-rail issues,” Duffy said, referring to Social Security and immigration. While immigration probably won’t be voters’ top concern, it can be potent enough to tip close races, she said.

Terri Lynn Land in Michigan has featured the issue in more than half her ads as polls show her gaining on Democrat Gary Peters, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Senators’ Plea

Obama in June had pledged to issue executive orders that might protect millions of people from deportation, because Congress wouldn’t act to change immigration laws.

His change of heart, which infuriated some Hispanic allies, came after some of the most endangered Democrats -- Shaheen and Senators Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina - - asked him to hold off. They cited the issue as one for Congress to address or the need to first secure the border with Mexico.

Obama defended his decision in an interview yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and said it wasn’t made to protect Democrats’ control of the Senate. He said a surge of unaccompanied Central American children crossing into the U.S. in July and August affected his calculations.

Amnesty was the buzzword that Republican opponents used to scuttle an immigration plan in 2007. That resonated with many party voters who said it rewards people who broke the law.

Hispanic Voters

Last year, Republicans avoided using the term to not alienate Hispanics, the fastest-growing voter bloc, in the 2016 presidential race. About 73 percent of Hispanic voters favored Obama in the 2012 election.

Democrats reject the use of the word, saying the plan they favor would require undocumented immigrants to wait 10 years and pay a fine before earning permanent-resident status in the U.S.

Republicans, who have a majority in the House of Representatives, need a net gain of six seats to gain control of the Senate. They’re favored to pick up three open seats now held by Democrats -- in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana, according to Cook. The next most vulnerable Democrats are incumbents in Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina.

The Democratic-run Senate last year passed a bill creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The legislation, S. 744, has stalled in the House. Some Republicans equate the votes of Senate Democrats, along with 14 Republicans who backed the bill, with support for amnesty.

The bill also contained more than $1 billion in border-enforcement funding and would have helped more high- and low-skilled immigrants work in the U.S.

Shifting Opinion

The Republican focus on immigration captures a shift in U.S. public opinion after the flurry of headlines about children from Central America massing at the U.S.-Mexico border.

One-third of Americans say stricter border controls should be the priority for U.S. policy, up from 25 percent who held that view in February 2013, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last month. Just 23 percent gave greater importance to offering a path to citizenship.

Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, conducted a bipartisan survey for George Washington University showing that Americans now think Republicans would do a better job than Democrats in handling immigration, a historical shift.

The political focus on immigration has been the greatest in New Hampshire, a state where Hispanics make up little more than 3 percent of the population. Border security was the topic of 69 percent of all ads in August, according to CMAG.

The only competitive state with a significant percentage of Hispanics in the electorate -- 14 percent -- is Colorado.

Libertarian Issue

Jim Merrill, a Republican strategist who ran 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire campaign, said the issue resonates with libertarian-minded voters who distrust Washington and big government.

Brown, a former Massachusetts senator, trailed Shaheen by 12 points among likely voters in a July WMUR poll.

“The Brown rise in the last four to six weeks coincides at least in part with the really tough immigration ads he’s run,” said Merrill, who isn’t affiliated with the campaign. New Hampshire voters “look at immigration through the lens of a federal government that’s out of control and failing,” he said.

In the most frequently run ad, Brown says, “Want to know why there’s lawlessness on our border? Ask Senator Shaheen. She voted against border security twice and for amnesty.”

Brown’s amnesty contention refers to Shaheen’s support for the DREAM Act, which would allow certain minors who were illegally brought to the U.S. to stay.

In Michigan, where the border issue accounted for 55 percent of the top Republican-sponsored ads, one spot accuses Peters of supporting “amnesty for illegal immigrants who take American jobs,” according to CMAG.

Three polls conducted by Republican research groups in August have Peters leading Land by one or two points. The six-point lead he is maintaining in a poll by EPIC-MRA of Lansing is down from nine points in July.

Eric Cantor

The potency of the issue is demonstrated by former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat by Tea Party favorite Dave Brat in the Virginia primary race in June, after polls showed Cantor far ahead.

While Cantor’s loss has been attributed to issues such as a lack of constituent service, Brat hammered the incumbent in the final weeks of the campaign for backing amnesty, which Cantor denied.

Cantor -- whose defeat signaled the end of attempts by the House at comprehensive immigration legislation -- didn’t support the Senate bill creating a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, though he did say he was interested in piecemeal immigration legislation.

Florida, Colorado

Obama, by trying to protect incumbents such as Hagan and Pryor, hurt the election chances of Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall and Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist while jeopardizing Hispanic support for Democrats later, said Gary Segura, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm in Renton, Washington.

“They’ve looked at polling in four or five states where there aren’t large Latino constituencies and said, ‘that’s the way forward,’ without thinking of the impact that that policy might have in Illinois, in California, in Florida,” said Gutierrez.

The increasing focus among Republicans on what they call amnesty also has some of their party members fretting about the impact of that message beyond the midterm elections, as the Hispanic and Asian share of the U.S. electorate grows.

“I’m worried,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “I can see that it may be good short-term politics. I am certain it’s awful long-term politics. Speaking as a middle-aged white man, our party cannot win elections if it’s only trying to win the votes of middle-aged white men.”

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