tags: Press Releases

AV Memo to Democrats: Real World Campaign Examples of How to Handle – and How Not to Handle – Immigration

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Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and her political advisors have drawn the wrong lessons from recent political history on immigration. Sen. Hassan is facing political blowback for her posturing around the border and immigration. 

She has distanced herself from the Biden administration on Title 42 like numerous other Democrats (we didn’t like this but when the White House was letting Democrats twist in the wind, we at least understood it). But Senator Hassan has gone much further. She is a co-sponsor of legislation that would impose onerous conditions that would likely spell the end of asylum in America. In addition, she traveled to the southern border to endorse completing sections of Trump’s border wall. 

Politico recapped the “backlash,” noting Republicans “mocked her as ‘MAGA Maggie’ and dismissed her appearances in Texas and Arizona as a desperate attempt to appear tough on border security ” while base voters and Latino leaders “reacted with rage to her southern border visit in early April and her opposition to the Biden administration’s plan to lift the Trump-era border restriction known as Title 42.” 

To Democrats interested in navigating this issue in 2022 elections, this is how not to handle immigration. Here’s why her newly-adopted hard line and border stunt are backfiring.

When Democrats talk like Republicans on immigration, it gets you nothing but blowback. Voters who want a hard line on immigration will vote for Republican hardliners. Voters who support Democrats want candidates to speak to their values of welcoming newcomers and to common sense solutions that balance compassion with controls. Just this month, the Immigration Hub released the results of a new battleground poll on immigration and the border. The key finding: “The path forward relies on talking about Democrats’ solutions and approach to the border in a way that is appealing to both swing voters and motivation targets alike.”

For years, we at America’s Voice have been tracking how immigration plays in tight races when immigration becomes an issue. Those races and our findings can be found below.  The conclusions aren’t complicated: reinforcing your opponent’s message and letting them define you and the terms of the debate isn’t a recipe for success; standing strong with a balanced position that speaks to the candidate’s universe of base and swing voters, is. 

Real World Campaign Examples of How Democrats Can Address Immigration 

Here are a few other examples of Democrats getting it right – maintaining pro-immigrant positions in the face of ugly GOP attacks on the issue:

  • Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign: Stephen Miller asserted in 2019 that Joe Biden’s immigration stance would prove to be “a massive political vulnerability,” and between April and June 2020, the Trump campaign spent more on immigration ads on Facebook than on any other issue. America’s Voice’s 2020 ad tracking project and report found that at the presidential level, Trump ran 157 unique ads that employed xenophobic messaging. But Biden remained steadfast on the issue and even closed by running an ad on immigration.   
  • Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC): In 2020, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper stayed confident in his pro-immigrant positioning despite GOP attempts to politicize “sanctuary cities.” In 2019, Gov. Cooper vetoed state legislation that would subvert local law enforcement’s authority and force local sheriffs to act as ICE deportation agents – despite the transparent political motivations of the NC GOP pushing the legislation. As Gov. Cooper noted in a message accompanying his veto, “This legislation is simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina.” Unsurprisingly, Gov. Cooper faced attack ads from the Republican Governors Association (see here and here) in his re-election, but won. Get that? A Southern Democrat attacked on immigration stayed strong and won reelection.
  • Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ): In 2020, Senator Kelly defeated Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) while maintaining pro-immigrant positions in the face of a barrage of attacks, including on “open borders.” When asked directly at the sole candidates’ debate about the future of the DACA program, Kelly acknowledged the need for border security in general but said DACA should not be contingent on security benchmarks, instead stating, “We have 28,000 mostly young people in the state of Arizona who look as American as my two kids and I think they should have a pathway to citizenship right now.”
  • 2020 House Democratic candidates who voted for pro-immigrant legislation last Congress: 
    • The America’s Voice 2020 Ad Watch tracking and analysis project found that only two Democratic House members were hit with attack ads for supporting “amnesty” (the Dream and Promise Act – HR6) – Reps. Matt Cartwright (D-PA-08) and Conor Lamb (D-PA-17). Both won reelection in 2020 without distancing themselves from those votes or adopting Republican-lite positions.
    • Meanwhile, Democrats Ron Kind (WI-03), Colin Allred (TX-32), Elissa Slotkin (MI-08), and Anthony Brindisi (NY-22), were all hit with ads attacking them for voting to give “stimulus checks to illegal immigrants” under the HEROES Act. Yet three of the four (Kind, Allred, and Slotkin) won their races without backtracking on their pro-immigrant votes.

2022 Examples from Pennsylvania

  • Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA): The same week that he criticized the Biden administration on its plan to lift Title 42, John Fetterman released a powerful pro-immigrant ad, which he previewed by noting: “Immigration is personal for me. [His wife] @giselefetterman lived in America undocumented for years after fleeing violence in Brazil when she was 7. I wouldn’t have a family if it weren’t for immigration. It’s what makes America, America.”  It’s a reminder that it’s possible to critique and even criticize the Biden administration on its handling of border policy and related politics and messaging, while ALSO remaining a strong pro-immigrant voice and recognizing the larger stakes and political benefits of broadening the immigration conversation. While we disagree with Fetterman’s call for extending Title 42, we get that he rushed this ad out to make sure his voters know that he is proudly and personally pro-immigrant. 
  • Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA). Rep. Lamb also recently came out as a “skeptic” of the Biden administration’s handling of Title 42, but has offered several other examples of how Democrats in tough districts and tough races can address immigration without throwing immigrants under the bus. In 2020, Rep. Lamb was one of the only Democrats to face “amnesty” attack ads for his vote in favor of the “Dream and Promise Act.” Instead of panicking, he stood strong and won re-election. In his surprise win in a March 2018 special election, his opponent Rick Saccone ran hard on sanctuary policies and “amnesty” attacks. Lamb did not take the bait, remained focused on key economic, healthcare stands, and when Lamb did engage on immigration, he articulated his strong support for legal status for undocumented immigrants and protections for Dreamers, assessing immigration as follows (per a Politico recap):

There are only four real options on immigration, Lamb explains. One, try to kick every undocumented immigrant out. Two, legalize the Dreamers – undocumented immigrants brought here as children – but try to kick out all the other migrants here illegally. Three, “the Dreamers obviously should stay,” and “the other 11½ million people, who knows how they got here, but they’re here, they’re in the shadows, that’s not really helping anybody, [so] let’s find a way to pull them out [of the shadows.]” And then there’s four: no change, continue the current policies. “I really believe that if you present those four options to people, 90 percent choose option three,” he says, adding that he also supports increased border security, but at ports of entry, not a wall.

  • Malcolm Kenyatta (D-PA): Meanwhile, Pennsylvania State Rep. Kenyatta, the third candidate and the most progressive in the race for the Democratic nomination for Senate, came out in support of the Biden administration’s plan to lift Title 42.

Real World Examples of Democrats Mishandling Immigration Politics

  • Senator Joe Donnelly (IN): In the 2018 cycle, Sen. Donnelly lost as an incumbent running for Senate re-election while embracing a series of Republican/Trump positions on immigration. He ran TV ads in favor of: building “a wall and support for ICE; touted that he would, “Stand with Trump to secure the southern border,” and ran an ad entitled “Border” that touted his support for Trump/Republican positions and his distance from Democrats on related subjects. 
  • Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO): In the 2018 cycle, Sen. McCaskill lost in her bid for a third term while proudly touting her endorsement from the Trump-endorsing national Border Patrol Council. An ad, which featured Brandon Judd (a proponent of “invasion” and “great replacement” rhetoric), noted that she “understands the threats to our borders,” and touted her vote to “end sanctuary cities.” 
  • Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-TN): Facing then-Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) in an open Senate contest in 2018, former Gov. Bredeson responded to Blackburn’s anti-immigrant attacks by adopting “Republican-lite” positions. Bredeson ran an ad touting that he “repealed driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants” and “deployed TN National Guard to the border.”
  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp: Facing attacks from now-Senator Kevin Cramer on immigration in her 2018 re-elect, Sen. Heitkamp ran an ad featuring a sheriff and touting her seven votes for “tougher border security” and votes to “deport illegal immigrants who commit crimes.”
  • Democrats tried this playbook in 2014, and all the Democrats lost: In a post-election Washington Post column, “Obama’s Big Immigration Mistake,” Dana Milbank wrote: “The president declined to act on immigration before the election. But all the Democratic Senate incumbents in red states that he was trying to protect lost anyway on Tuesday. There is evidence that the combination of low Hispanic turnout and lower Hispanic margins for Democrats doomed some Democratic candidates, including Charlie Crist, who lost his gubernatorial race in Florida, and perhaps Sen. Mark Udall, who lost his reelection bid in Colorado … [the results do not] necessarily mean Obama’s delayed action on immigration caused Democrats problems with Latinos, nor does it mean Tuesday’s results would have been dramatically different if he had acted sooner. But it does make a case for worrying more about what’s right than what’s expedient.”

Each of the above examples featured tough races in states trending Republican. Most featured GOP attack ads on the issue of immigration and the border. And yes, the above candidates may have lost regardless of their immigration positioning. But they are reminders that adopting Republican-lite positions or attempting to ignore the issue is not a cure all or the right response – it alienates base voters and reinforces the GOP attacks.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

It is rare for Democratic candidates to win on immigration itself (although Senator Harry Reid of Nevada did just that in 2010). But in most swing states, Democrats need to stake out a clear and balanced position, stick to it, and neutralize GOP base-mobilizing attacks with a strategy that stands firm, underscores values, proposes solutions and pivotes to the candidate’s top issues. Based on our race analysis, that is the formula that works best. Panicking, talking to Republican voters who will not vote for you and turning your back on Democratic and swing voters who will, does not.