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If Republicans Plan to Deploy Immigration to Win in 2022, Why Did They Shy Away from the Issue in a Border State Special Election?

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Maybe it’s because nativism as a wedge backfires

Washington, DC – Republican leaders have been crowing about their plans to deploy immigration as a wedge issue in 2022. So, of course, they would use a special election in a suburban district in a border state to test drive their claims, right?


In the special election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, the Republican candidate Mark Moores made noise about immigration and the border, but mostly focused his attacks on stirring up fears about rising crime rates and “defund the police.”

The result? The Democratic candidate Melanie Stansbury won in a landslide, winning by greater margins than the 2020 victory by President Biden and the 2018 and 2020 victories by former Democratic incumbent Rep. Deb Haaland. 

Wait, isn’t immigration the key to Republican majorities in 2022? Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) says immigration is the “central issue in the campaign in 2022.” Stephen Miller says, “Heading into the midterms, I think that Republicans are increasingly realizing that this [immigration] can be one of the most potent issues, both to motivate our voters, but equally as important, to appeal to swing voters.” In March, Kevin McCarthy turned from Dr. Seuss to the “Biden border crisis,” even suggesting, without evidence, that agents claim terrorists are crossing the border. 

Immigration did feature heavily in the NM-01 televised debate. The Republican candidate attacked Stansbury for her “radical agenda” on immigration, claiming she wanted to defund ICE and CBP. Stansbury responded by calling for a fair and just immigration policy, an end to border wall construction, a humanitarian approach to asylum seekers and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 

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

Too many pundits – and more than a few Democrats – seem to believe that immigration is a wedge issue Republicans will deploy effectively in 2022. But these observers ignore the fact that the issue has been litigated in recent elections, and the results are in. 

Immigration mobilizes white grievance voters to turn out and it mobilizes a multiracial coalition to turn out to reject racism and xenophobia. In districts where white grievance voters are the majority, you could argue nativism works. But in the swing districts that decide which party wins majorities, it backfires.

In 2017 in Virginia, Ed Gillespie ran Willie Horton-style ads about MS-13 members coming for your family. In what was supposed to be a tossup, he lost to Governor Ralph Northam by 9 points. In 2018, Trump nationalized the midterms by stoking fear and loathing of migrants fleeing their countries in migrant caravans. Republicans lost by the largest margin in midterm history. In 2019, the GOP launched anti-immigrant attacks on Democratic gubernatorial candidates John Bel Edwards in Louisiana and Andy Beshear in Kentucky. In both red states, the Democrat won. And in 2020, Trump attacked Biden on ‘amnesty’ in paid advertising and speeches, while Biden ran ads on immigration down the stretch. Biden won by 7 million votes. Also in 2020, Republicans attacked Pennsylvania House Democratic incumbents Conor Lamb and Matt Cartwright in white working class districts. The ‘amnesty’ attacks fell flat.

Sure, this is one special election and NM-01 is a blue district. But for all those expecting to find evidence of a backlash against Biden and the trumped up ‘Biden border crisis,’ there is none, zilch, nada. The more relevant question is this: if Republicans keep appealing to their white grievance base with dog whistles, how do they expect to claw back educated suburban voters they lost in recent elections?