By Ted Hesson and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Leading Republican vying to topple an Arizona Democrat in crucial US Senate race next year heats up when he talks about Democratic President Joe Biden’s “failed border policies”, sometimes throwing swearing to denounce their alleged financial cost and he says it is the threat they represent for the Americans.
The candidate, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, is betting the message will resonate with voters that Republicans must rally in the 2022 election to shift the balance of power in Congress.
“Immigration in itself is not a bad thing,” Brnovich, himself the son of immigrants from Montenegro and Croatia, said in an interview with Reuters. “But illegal immigration undermines the rule of law.”
Echoing some of the harsh rhetoric of former Republican President Donald Trump, Brnovich supports building a wall between the United States and Mexico and stricter immigration enforcement.
His opponent, incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Kelly, is a well-known retired astronaut and the husband of former US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Its seat was deemed vulnerable by election trackers after securing a narrow victory in a special election last year.
While the Arizona race is one of the most high-profile contests where immigration has become a line of attack for Republicans, the strategy isn’t limited to the Southwestern border state.
Republicans across the country are targeting the political vulnerability of Biden, whose administration has struggled to curb record arrests of migrants at the US-Mexico border. Some critics say he has failed to find a cohesive approach to immigration, holding some of Trump’s policies in place while pushing back others, inviting attacks from both the right and the left.
“We are deeply offended,” said Emma Vaughn, national press secretary for the Republican National Committee, which plays a central role in shaping the party’s electoral strategy. “Immigration doesn’t just impact border towns, it impacts Americans everywhere.”
Reuters polls support the idea that immigration is a primary motivation for likely Republican voters. An October Reuters opinion poll of nearly 1,600 Republicans found immigration topped the list of issues that would make them “very angry” if the government acted against their views.
Democrats, on the other hand, didn’t rank immigration in any of their top 12 anger-provoking issues. Researchers have found that anger is more likely to encourage voting than other emotions.
As the November 2022 midterm elections approach, Democrats currently control both houses of Congress by a narrow margin. The Senate has 48 Democrats and two independents who bring together 50 Republicans, giving Vice President Kamala Harris a deciding vote. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats hold 221 seats against 213 for the Republicans, with one seat vacant.
As attorney general, Brnovich has filed four lawsuits this year challenging Biden’s immigration actions, including a lawsuit that Biden failed to assess the environmental effects of illegal immigration, such as pollution and stress on natural resources.
Democrat Kelly has also criticized Biden’s approach to the southern border at times, most recently sending a December 16 letter to the president calling on him to close existing loopholes in Arizona border barriers. . At the same time, Kelly urged Biden to restore areas damaged by the construction of the Trump-era border wall.
“Your administration needs to make resolving these issues a priority,” Kelly wrote. “Arizona deserves better from Washington on the border.”
On Monday, the US Department of Homeland Security said it would take steps to close remaining “small gaps” from the previous border wall construction and carry out other construction work, with an emphasis on a stretch of border in Arizona.
Kelly’s stricter stance on the border contrasts with most of his fellow Democrats, who scorn Trump’s immigration tactics, a reflection of the threat immigration-focused attacks on the incumbent could pose in the race .
Biden took office in January promising to roll back nearly all of Trump’s restrictive immigration measures, but he has so far been hampered by internal tensions within his administration and ongoing court battles.
Some friction was evident in the President’s Home Policy Council. Council director Susan Rice has tended to push for tighter border enforcement, sometimes clashing with her own more liberal employees, according to a former U.S. official familiar with the situation who requested anonymity.
Advocates for immigrants who have joined the Biden administration have been disappointed with its approach to the border, including the mass deportation of Haitians caught crossing Mexico, a second official told Reuters, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Some Biden officials have acknowledged internally that large numbers of migrants arriving at the border could derail the president’s broader immigration program, Reuters reported earlier this year.
Biden left in place a sweeping Trump-era border eviction policy implemented when the COVID-19 pandemic began, and a court ordered a court to resuscitate another intransigent Trump program that compels migrants to wait in Mexico while their requests for asylum in the United States progress – – two movements which have dismayed the defenders.
A White House spokesperson said all Biden staff were “committed to implementing a fair and orderly immigration system,” and denied any tension between Susan Rice and Council staff. domestic policy.
The spokesperson, who requested anonymity, added that Republicans also focused heavily on immigration ahead of the 2018 midterm election, ultimately losing the House to the Democrats.
Republicans and their allies are already running immigration-themed ads, a likely preview of what Democrats can expect over the coming year.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that promotes lower immigration levels, launched a six-figure digital advertising campaign in Texas and Arizona last week that attacks Biden and other Democrats and describes the border as lawless.
“President Biden sabotaged the country’s immigration controls,” said a man’s voice in the video announcement of migrants in conflict with Mexican authorities. The ad will run in Spanish and English in an attempt to reach Hispanic voters.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Republicans to be re-elected in 2022, have become the main critics of Biden’s immigration policies. Abbott and DeSantis are seen as possible Republican presidential candidates in 2024, and the White House is closely following their gubernatorial races, according to a third U.S. official.
The Biden administration is working with allies outside the government to neutralize criticism, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal plans.
One strategy is to remind voters of Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy, which has led to the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents and has drawn international condemnation, the official said.
The White House is also counting that its efforts to speed up the processing of asylum claims at the southern border – a much-vaunted plan that has yet to produce significant results – will gain momentum next year.
But many pro-immigrant activists remain skeptical, including Jennifer Quigley, senior director of government affairs for the pro-immigrant organization Human Rights First.
“They don’t see the human and legal entry of asylum seekers as a politically winning thing,” Quigley said.
(Corrects the contrast with the contrasts in paragraph 16)
(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; editing by Mica Rosenberg and Jonathan Oatis)