WASHINGTON — Not long ago, as heart-rending images of migrant children separated from their parents at the border filled the airwaves, the issue of immigration seemed to be losing some of its potency as a weapon for Republicans with the midterm elections approaching.
But Republican candidates across the country, leaning on the scorched-earth campaign playbook employed by President Trump, saw an opening nonetheless, painting Democrats as the ones pursuing an extreme immigration agenda that would fill the country with “sanctuary cities” where violent criminals roam free.
The strategy, in play in a growing number of races, may be working. As a tight battle for control of Congress enters its closing weeks, Democrats have found that in politically competitive states, particularly ones that Mr. Trump carried in 2016, the attacks can easily turn crucial voting blocs against Democrats.
“Sanctuary attacks pack a punch,” says a four-page memorandum, prepared by the liberal Center for American Progress and the centrist think tank Third Way, that has been shared at about a dozen briefings for Democrats in recent weeks. The New York Times obtained a copy of the memo, whose findings are based on interviews and surveys conducted over the summer.
Many of the Republican attacks use misleading language and employ overblown claims about the dangers of immigrants. But the fear-based appeal demonstrates how Mr. Trump has overcome months of negative headlines about his hard-edge immigration policies to make the issue a potentially profitable one as Republicans try to preserve their slim Senate majority and defy projections that they will lose the House.
Democrats, the strategists who prepared the memo advised, could neutralize the attacks if they responded head-on. But they should spend “as little time as possible” talking about immigration itself, and instead pivot to more fruitful issues for Democrats like health care and taxation.
The strategists worry that Republicans’ foreboding immigration message is far more personal to most voters than the more modulated position of Democrats, whose push to protect the young immigrants known as Dreamers and to ensure humane treatment of undocumented people does not, in many cases, affect voters themselves.
By Julie Hirschfeld Davis for THE NEW YORK TIMES
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