By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN
As ambitious Republicans plot their return to power in the midterm elections and in statewide races across the country, a familiar face is ready and willing to help them capitalize on President Joe Biden’s sagging poll numbers on immigration.
Stephen Miller, the architect of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, is among a group of policy hawks urging Republican Party officials and candidates to exploit what they describe as Biden’s glaring vulnerability, after crises on the border.
“I’m very open about the fact that I believe the Republican Party needs to really dig in starting now, and work and put in the work to elevate this issue to the center of our national dialogue,” Miller told CNN, adding he’s been in discussions with Republican Party officials and candidates who he has prior relationships with.
He’s among a group of Trump White House aides who will be formally advising the Pennsylvania US Senate campaign of David McCormick, a Republican hedge fund executive, a person familiar with the campaign told CNN.
But with or without Miller’s direct input, immigration is set to vex Democrats. The ebbs and flows of migration patterns are generally out of the control of any sitting US president, but Biden has faced mounds of criticism from both the left and the right.
Most recently, the White House made an about-face on whether migrant families separated under the Trump administration deserve compensation. Initially Biden said they did, but after intense criticism, his administration walked away from the negotiations, which had reportedly included a figure of up to $450,000 per individual affected by the policy, and now the Justice Department has outlined its arguments against payment in a recent court filing.
The administration’s immigration policy challenges come as Biden’s approval rating has sagged. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday finds the President’s approval rating at 33% approve to 53% disapprove, with another 13% not offering opinions. Other relatively recent surveys have shown him with a somewhat higher approval rating, but similar numbers on disapproval.
And in December, a survey found that Biden’s approval ratings on immigration — 40% — stood below his overall approval number at the time.
As a result, Republican strategists expect immigration to play a significant role in primaries this year following months of criticism over the administration’s handling of the US-Mexico border.
“When it gets to how does it look for the next year, I think you’ll see it a lot in primary races, and I think you’ll see it in more conservative districts and if a candidate is underperforming among Republican voters,” one Republican strategist told CNN. But focusing solely on immigration is unlikely to help sway swing voters, the strategist warned, and will instead be cited as a failure of the Biden administration, among other issues.
In Arizona, where there’s a key US Senate race, state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who’s sued the Biden administration over immigration policies, listed border security in a video launching his campaign for the Senate, showcasing a headline about his fight to “retain Trump immigration rules.”
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s up for reelection, has similarly challenged policies in court and hammered the Biden administration over the arrival of thousands of migrants at the US southern border.
And it’s not confined to border states. In Pennsylvania, Republican candidate for governor Lou Barletta jumped on flights transporting migrants to the state — a routine practice.
“It’s nothing that Republicans need to do to make it an issue. It’s become an issue,” said Dave Carney, a Republican political consultant, referring to border security.
Some observers argue that the administration’s lack of strategy on immigration has contributed to confusion and frustration. That’s a concern for Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas. Cuellar, who has been critical of the administration’s approach to the border, told CNN he’s repeatedly heard from constituents who share similar concerns.
“They think Democrats are pretty much more open borders. They feel that they’re not doing enough,” Cuellar said. “The Republicans have certainly jumped on that issue.”
It could be a particularly difficult subject for Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, who’s seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate. The Arizona-Mexico border has recently faced a surge of migrants that’s overwhelmed resources. Despite a Democratic victory in the state in 2020, Republicans are buoyant that voters have soured on Democratic control and will punish the party at the ballot box in 2022.
The Biden administration has held on to some Trump-era policies, including a public health order allowing for the swift expulsion of migrants encountered at the border and, in the wake of a lower court decision, a policy forcing migrants to stay in Mexico until their US immigration court dates. But that hasn’t shielded Biden from criticism from the right, and has instead fueled frustration on the left.
Immigrant advocacy groups repeatedly expressed their disappointment with the administration maintaining Trump-era border policies and expelling thousands of migrants encountered at the border over the last year.
“One side is filling the zone with a narrative and the other side is saying virtually nothing. As a result, many swing voters who found Trump’s cruelty abhorrent are upset at Biden for what they call minding the store and not having a plan,” said Frank Sharry, president of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group.
“Democratic candidates are going to have to both compete on who has the better solution, who has the best immigration solution, and by pivoting to issues that motivate Democratic voters,” he added.
Anti-immigrant groups see an opportunity to lean into that this year. “How can the Republican political apparatus not seize on what is the most, the second most, clear obvious political opportunity that Biden has laid open for Republican candidates?” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, citing inflation as the first issue.
The group plans to invest millions in issue-based ads this year and roll out additional Spanish-language ads — a first for the group, Stein said.
Arturo Vargas, chief executive officer of NALEO Educational Fund, warned of viewing Hispanics as a single-issue electorate but noted that campaign ads in English and Spanish are generally important to reaching all segments of the electorate.
In 2020, Trump, despite his hardline immigration policies, made inroads among voters in Hispanic areas nationwide. The Republican National Committee plans to capitalize on that and ramp up its outreach to Hispanic voters, according to spokesperson Emma Vaughn.
“The issue of immigration cannot be synonymous with the Latino issue, which too often happens with candidates and campaigns,” Vargas said. “There are certainly segments of the Latino electorate for whom immigration reform is a top priority and they’ll hold candidates accountable for whether they’ll get immigration reform.”
To that end, Democratic lawmakers have pledged to continue seeking a path for immigration revisions after the Senate parliamentarian rejected multiple attempts to include immigration provisions in the Build Back Better legislation.
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