Democrats in Congress are trying to go on offense on border security. They see the collapse of a bipartisan border deal as a rare opening to flip the script on immigration, even if they can’t fully overcome years of attacks claiming they’re weak on the issue.
In both chambers, Democrats are vowing to bring the charge to TV ads this fall. And party strategists are already shopping around polling, testing different messages on the issue. Democrats are also aggressively pitching local news outlets on Republicans’ about-face. Even the Biden administration has already started needling Republicans on it.
The working message: Republicans are flip-flopping on an issue of national security, opposing their own painstakingly drafted solution because former President Donald Trump wants chaos at the border.
“If they think that we aren’t going to talk about their unbelievable hypocrisy, they’re wrong,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) in an interview. “The minute Donald Trump came out and said that he wanted to preserve chaos at the border, they ran for the hills. That is a story that’s very easy for this country to understand.”
And it’s an attack Democrats plan to deploy across the entire GOP: Everyone from Speaker Mike Johnson and House Republicans to GOP candidates for House and Senate opposed the legislation.
House Majority PAC, Democrats’ top House super PAC, plans to “use the bill extensively in our ads against them this fall,” said spokesperson CJ Warnke. So will Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, spokesperson David Bergstein vowed: “It will be a major line of attack against their candidates. The ads write themselves.”
It’s a remarkable political reversal for Republicans, who have long clamored for border legislation and succeeded in getting Democrats to make big concessions in the current package. To unlock more Ukraine money, Democrats dropped their demands for a path to citizenship or legalization for some undocumented immigrants, instead embracing a border-security-first ethos that they long rejected. It’s a dynamic that Democrats hope will help them defend vulnerable seats they’re holding in red states, take back the House and — just maybe — keep President Joe Biden in the White House.
But it remains to be seen how effectively Democrats’ attacks will land, especially since the legislative implosion occurred months before the November elections. And Republicans say they welcome the fight: “We hope Democrats are sincere in their assertion that they plan to show footage of Biden’s border crisis in every single campaign ad they run,” said Mike Berg, a spokesperson for the Senate GOP campaign arm.
An early messaging test may come as early as next week in New York.
Immigration is taking center stage in the 3rd Congressional District special election on Long Island, where Republicans are pummeling Democratic nominee Tom Suozzi on the migrant crisis that has sent some 160,000 migrants to the New York City area. His GOP opponent, Mazi Pilip, came out against the proposal. Suozzi has said he would support it.
“They are only playing politics. So we should drill that home for sure,” said Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), the Democratic Party chair in Queens, part of which lies in the district hosting the special election. “The independent voters, etc. They are watching, they’re paying attention.”
On Long Island, Republicans have gone all-in on the migrant crisis, spending $5.5 million on broadcast TV ads to hammer Suozzi on the issue, according to the media tracking firm AdImpact. They will be even more emboldened if he loses on Tuesday.
Democratic strategists privately conceded that they will not suddenly have the upper hand on immigration politics nationwide. But the disintegration of the deal gives them an easy response to Republican attacks that they otherwise might not have had.
Every two years, the party is pummeled with immigration-focused hits, and the issue has once again risen to the top of GOP campaigns’ agendas. In 2018 the migrant caravan took a star turn in TV ads. In 2022, Republican governors bused and flew migrants from the border to blue states.
Republicans don’t seem eager to change course. Trump’s made it clear he wants to campaign on Biden’s handling of the border — lobbying to kill the deal that would have handed Biden a bipartisan win — and Republicans believe they will be able to recover after a brief surge of criticism.
“The spotlight will be on us for a small period of time, but it will go back on them,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is still pushing for border security measures in a national security supplemental bill despite rejecting the bipartisan deal.
Even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who supported the bipartisan bill and is frustrated with his party for not standing up to Trump, called it “laughable” for Democrats to try and take Republicans on over the border given the rate of illegal crossings during Biden’s presidency.
But Democratic strategists still view the bill as the most conservative border policy shakeup in decades and are surprised Republicans walked away after getting so many concessions.
Of course Democrats are attacking Republicans for flip-flopping, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska): “And wouldn’t you? We as Republicans need to look at what we’ve said,” she said. “We’ve done a great job of messaging. But people expect us to address it.”
Democrats’ message is about more than just GOP hypocrisy. They’re telling voters Republicans are placing Trump, and politics, above making progress on an issue as serious as the border crisis.
“Their daddy told them no,” mocked Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from a Texas border district.
They began testing those messages even before the deal collapsed.
A poll of battleground House districts conducted by Navigator Research in mid-January, testing Democratic messages on different topics, found 66 percent of voters in those districts would be concerned if “Republicans in Congress are more interested in playing politics and scoring points than fixing the immigration system.”
Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate and Republicans have a miniscule edge in the House. Both parties are looking for any advantage, however small.
Endangered Senate Democrats all supported the legislation, while Republican Senate candidates, from Kari Lake in Arizona to Bernie Moreno in Ohio, came out against it. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said “This will hurt them on election night.”
And Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a red-state Democrat facing perhaps his toughest-ever race, is one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate. Both of his potential opponents, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) and Tim Sheehy, signaled they would oppose the legislation.
“We’re letting people know,” Tester said in an interview on Thursday after supporting the bill.
“I don’t think they can stand up and say they want a secure border then. I think it becomes incredibly hypocritical.”