At the crossroads of immigration and electoral politics, these are our top picks
How is the issue of immigration faring in the 2020 elections?
Below are seven key races we are watching closely. We believe these are the top races that will indicate whether immigration is a wedge issue that works for Trump and the GOP or a wedge issue that has lost its edge.
We know that xenophobia was Trumpism’s original sin. We know that immigration has been the Trump administration’s signature policy issue. And we know that Trump leaned into immigration in the 2018 midterms and it backfired. But what do we know about how immigration is playing in the 2020 election cycle?
Presidential contest: Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden.
Since he descended the golden escalator, Donald Trump has made racism and xenophobia central to his political identity. Trump’s hardline rhetoric and positions helped him win the GOP nomination and the presidency in 2016. But once in office, his actual immigration record – defined by issues such as family separation, ending DACA and TPS, building the border wall and slamming the doors on refugees and asylum seekers – became very unpopular with the majority of voters.
In 2018, Trump nationalized the midterms, ranted relentlessly about caravans and criminals, and suffered the biggest midterm defeat in American history. In 2020, Trump and his campaign have spent millions attacking Joe Biden over “amnesty,” an odd choice given that a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is favored four to one by voters. In his rallies, Trump regularly rails that Democrats are for “open borders” and focuses his xenophobic attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar and Biden’s promise to rebuild the U.S. refugee program.
Meanwhile, a confident Joe Biden promises to end family separation, protect those with DACA and TPS, and introduce legislation to put 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship early in his presidency. During the last debate, Biden leaned into an attack on Trump for his family separation policy, calling it “criminal.” He followed up the debate with an ad that features his stand on family separation and his promise to organize a federal task force to reunite the separated families.
These steps represent a sea change in how Democrats deal with immigration. In the past, most avoided the issue and braced for Republican attacks, fearful that the dog-whistle ads would peel off swing voters. But now, Biden is on offense in the closing days of the race on an issue that was considered a Trump strength.
Is immigration still a winner for Trump? Or is a multiracial majority poised to repudiate Trump’s racism and xenophobia?
North Carolina Governor: Roy Cooper (D, Incumbent) vs. Dan Forest (R).
North Carolina Republicans have launched attack ads against the Democratic incumbent Roy Cooper on the issue of sanctuary policies.
By way of background, in 2019 the GOP-controlled state legislature passed a “sanctuary” bill to force Governor Cooper’s hand. Cooper vetoed the bill, noting, “This legislation is simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina.”
This fall, the Republican Governors Association (RGA) spent a reported $3 million on a series of attack ads and Facebook spending on the “sanctuary” issue. A local PAC supporting Republican challenger Dan Forest called Truth and Prosperity has joined in.
Will the attack ads tighten the race? Or will Cooper’s polling lead vindicate his strategy of keeping his focus on the coronavirus response?
U.S. Senator Arizona: Martha McSally (R, Incumbent) vs. Mark Kelly (D).
Senator McSally, once known as a McCain-style pragmatist, has reinvented herself as a loyal Trump foot soldier. In her 2018 race against Kristen Synema, McSally leaned into hardline immigration positions. She lost. Once appointed to the Senate to fill the seat left vacant by Senator McCain’s death, she ramped up her reputation as a Trumpian hardliner in the Senate.
In the 2020 race, she has attacked Mark Kelly for allegedly supporting “taxpayer-funded healthcare for illegal immigrants.” She has run Facebook ads claiming “Democrats want to abolish ICE and open our borders to whoever wants to come.” And she’s running a TV ad featuring a Border Patrol union official who attacks Kelly and Democrats. At their only debate, McSally endorsed the border wall and stated that any solution for Dreamers must be paired with border security tradeoffs, a Trump White House talking point.
By contrast, Mark Kelly has been unequivocal on key immigration measures. In particular, he has repeatedly stated his strong support for Dreamers and DACA. During the debate, Kelly stated: “We have 28,000 mostly young people in the state of Arizona who I look at as American as my two kids and I think they should have a pathway to citizenship right now.”
Will McSally’s Trumpian stances draw enough support from the Trump faithful to win her a seat to which she was appointed? Or, will Kelly parlay his strong pro-immigrant positions and strong Latino support into a win?
U.S. Senator Texas: John Cornyn (R, incumbent) vs. M.J. Hegar (D).
The incumbent Senator John Cornyn is getting a surprisingly competitive challenge from relative unknown M.J. Hegar. Under pressure in 2020, Cornyn ran a Spanish-language ad representing himself as a strong supporter of legalization for Dreamers. Then, when questioned about his close alliance with Trump, said that he expressed opposition to Trump’s raiding of military budgets to fund the border wall – in private.
Hegar jumped all over Cornyn for both, pointing out that he has a well-established voting and public record of opposing the legalization of Dreamers and supporting Trump’s arguably unconstitutional border wall maneuvers. She has been clear and strong in her pro-immigrant stances.
Will the Number 2 man in the Senate hang onto his seat by pretending to be more pro-immigrant than he actually is and anti-wall despite the public record to the contrary? Or will Hegar pull off the upset of the cycle by taking down a three-term senator?
House of Representatives, Pennsylvania-08: Matt Cartwright (D incumbent) vs. Jim Bognet (R).
In this northeastern Pennsylvania district, Republican Jim Bognet, an acolyte of anti-immigrant zealot Lou Barletta, has attacked the Democratic incumbent Matt Cartwright for voting in support of the “Dream and Promise Act” (HR-6) on behalf of Dreamers and TPS holders. Bognet has made xenophobia central to his candidacy. His attack ads go after Cartwright for supporting “amnesty for illegals” and he attacks the Democratic incumbent for supporting a COVID relief package, the HEROES Act, that included benefits for mixed status families, including some undocumented immigrants.
Will this Trump-endorsed, Lou Barletta sycophant upset the incumbent with his attacks on Cartwright’s support for Dreamers, TPS holders and mixed-status families? Or, like his mentor, will his attacks fall flat in a district that favors moderates?
House of Representatives, Pennsylvania-17: Conor Lamb (D, incumbent) vs. Sean Parnell (R).
During his special election win in March of 2018, Democrat Conor Lamb successfully defeated ugly anti-immigrant attacks to win the Trump +20 PA-18 district in western Pennsylvania. It was an upset that gained national attention.
Now representing the redrawn PA-17 district (which Trump won in 2016 by 54 – 43%), Lamb has been targeted for his immigration votes by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to GOP House leadership. In a closing ad, an older woman actor accuses Rep. Lamb of voting “to protect illegal immigrant gang members,” citing Rep. Lamb’s vote for HR-6, a bill to permanently legalize Dreamers and TPS holders.
Will Conor Lamb continue to defy the odds and win as a Democrat in a very Trump western Pennsylvania District? Or will the immigration attack ads lead his Republican challenger to victory?
House of Representatives: Texas-32: Colin Allred (D, incumbent) vs. Genevieve Collins (R).
Republican challenger Genevieve Collins has pulled out all the dog-whistles – China, defunding the police, taxes and immigration – in an attempt to flip Rep. Colin Allred’s suburban Dallas seat. Collins has run this ad and this ad falsely asserting Rep. Allred voted for $6,000 stimulus checks to “illegal immigrants.”
Allred upset Republican incumbent Pete Sessions in 2018 to become the first Democrat to serve in this seat since it was redrawn in 2003, and this district leans Republican in its voting composition (PVI R+5).
Will this freshman in a suburban district get hurt for voting with Democrats for immigrant inclusion in COVID relief packages, or will Republican troubles in Texan suburbs lead to Allred’s reelection?
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:
This election is something of a referendum on the reliance by Trump and GOP candidates on racism and xenophobia.
With his demonization of Mexicans as ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals,’ the rally chants of ‘build the wall’ and his promise to ban Muslims, Trump’s nativism was seen as central to his upset victory in 2016. With his racial incitement related to ‘caravans and criminals,’ Trump’s nativism was seen as a strategy that failed in the 2018 midterms.
Unsurprisingly, Trump and GOP candidates down ballot are attacking their Democratic rivals for supporting fair and humane immigration and refugee policies. Surprisingly, Joe Biden is leaning in on immigration and Trump is on defense given the headlines regarding family separation and the fact that 545 kids remain apart from their parents.
Will Democrats be punished or rewarded for supporting America’s newcomers? Will Trump and the GOP be punished or rewarded for embracing racism and xenophobia?
We’ll find out soon enough.
For a deeper and more comprehensive look at immigration and 2020, see our comprehensive ad tracking database, 2020 Ad Watch and be on the lookout for additional analysis.