Welcome to the junction of “despite” and “because.” Democrats have assumed that Donald Trump’s harsh immigration-enforcement policies would inspire massive turnout in Hispanic communities, especially with the media firestorm fueled by family separation outcomes. Latino voters would lead the repudiation of Trump’s policies at the ballot box in November, leading to a new Democratic majority in Congress.
Sounds like a reasonable plan, right? Not so fast, reports Josh Kraushaar at National Journal. So far, the turnout in primaries in predominantly Hispanic districts looks an awful lot like 2016 rather than 2006:
Democrats counting on President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies to spark energized Hispanic turnout and a wave against GOP candidates in this year’s midterms will be surprised to see what’s transpiring. Even during the heat of the family-separation crisis, Democrats are underperforming in heavily Hispanic constituencies, from GOP-held border battlegrounds in Texas to diversifying districts in Southern California to the nation’s most populous Senate battleground in Florida.
If immigration affects the battle for Congress, it will be because of the anti-Trump backlash among suburban women as much as any increased mobilization in the Hispanic communities. The early returns are a sobering reminder for Democrats that, even as the Republican Party is becoming a more nativist institution, GOP candidates are still holding their own in diverse battlegrounds by distinguishing themselves from Trump.
In state after state, the backlash — at least among Hispanics — has yet to materialize. Kraushaar notes that there has been no evidence of a wave in the very districts that Democrats thought immigration would drive turnout. Nothing changed in the special-election primary for Blake Farenthold’s seat in Texas, which is majority-Hispanic. Senator Bill Nelson is still struggling in his re-election bid in Florida against Rick Scott, whose positive polling numbers among Hispanics almost exactly equals Nelson’s. California’s primaries also showed little evidence of any immigration-motivated turnout wave.
The lesson, Kraushaar says, is that economic issues probably still trump everything else, pun intended, including immigration. And that’s true for everyone, including Hispanics:
These results also are an uncomfortable reminder to Republicans who championed the Republican National Committee’s infamous 2013 autopsy report claiming the party needed to moderate its position on immigration to win back Hispanic voters. Trump won the 2016 presidential campaign despite embracing hard-line immigration policies and deploying racially inflammatory rhetoric. Meanwhile, these results show that a critical mass of Hispanic voters are willing to prioritize other issues—like the growing economy—in choosing congressional candidates.
It might be more of a “Democrats pounce” issue. The family-separation outcomes did increase with zero tolerance, and it was plain that the Trump administration understood that consequence without preparing first to mitigate it. Had Democrats kept focused on that, they might have made some headway. Instead, they’ve basically come out for zero enforcement, which will alienate the large majority of voters who want tougher enforcement rather than forfeit on border security:
Abolishing ICE, or even just the components responsible for border security, amounts to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Family separations are wildly unpopular, and for good reason, but border enforcement is not. A Harvard-Harris poll from last week shows 88% of Americans opposed to family separations, but 70% in favor of stricter enforcement of immigration laws. Majorities oppose the so-called “catch and release” policies forced by the Flores settlement and the TVPRA (55%), prosecuting illegal border crossers (64%), and deportation (64%). Even with the controversy of family separations at the top of the headlines, the same political consensus on immigration policy that put Donald Trump in office remains.
It’s worth noting that Trump got a 38% approval rating on immigration among Hispanics in this poll, taken at the peak of the controversy — well above the 21% he got from Democrats, and got 46/50 overall. Hispanics also went 51/49 for stricter enforcement of immigration laws (same as Democrats, actually), and only 29% didn’t want any form of stronger enforcement. There may be a serious question as to whether a lack of a wave among Hispanics on immigration issues is despite Trump or because Trump.
Not so coincidentally, guess who sent up a warning flare to Democrats on this issue?
Ironically, the momentum on this hyperbole was momentarily halted by none other than the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. As The Daily Beast reported, the Democratic group on Capitol Hill began distributing their arguments against calls for the abolition of ICE, even while arguing that its border enforcement was “inhumane and harsh.” However, the group pointed out that ICE and its 20,000 employees do a lot more than enforce border security, such as human trafficking, firearms smuggling, and counterterrorism. The counter to bad policy is to set better policy, the Caucus argued, not to wipe out an agency that has many different responsibilities, most of which have broad bipartisan consensus in both scope and execution.
Still, Republicans had better not sit back and rest on the dubious laurels of their opponents’ incompetence. The gap on the generic ballot has begun to expand again, as the average at RCP shows, drifting back up to 7.2 points after two months of Republican gains. It’s even ticking back up at Rasmussen, where the latest iteration found a Democrat +6 lead after several rounds of D+4. That might be a gender gap coming back into play, as Kraushaar believes, or a delayed impact of the family-separation issue finally coming into view. If Democrats continue to demand abolishment of enforcement rather than cooperate on a fix for those outcomes, the backlash might soon be heading their way instead.