To Vinita Smith, the most important issue in this year’s congressional elections is simple: The government needs to protect Americans.
Securing the nation’s borders is crucial to that mission, said the retiree from Panora, Iowa, and so far, “I think this government is failing dismally.”
From the border to inland states such as Iowa with key elections, Republicans are agitated and energized by illegal immigration. Just in time for the fall campaign, the issue is being magnified by fears of Islamic State terrorists making their way into the U.S. through a porous border with Mexico, and anger at President Barack Obama’s signal that he’ll act unilaterally after the elections to curb deportations of illegal immigrants.
“This issue works on so many levels,” said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “There are ethnic and racial overtones, and there are economic issues involved.” As well as the terrorist threat.
Democrats are in a bind. Latino voters have been increasingly loyal to the party. But Obama fears doing anything to stir more of a Republican backlash and has postponed a promised executive action that would provide temporary legal status for some of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants. Striving to assuage the Latino base, Vice President Joe Biden assured activists this week that Obama will take action after the election. The president, he said, is “going to do an awful lot” on immigration.
The issue won’t hurt the party, said Justin Barasky, Democrats’ Senate campaign committee spokesman. “Republican efforts to continue dividing the country around comprehensive immigration reform show voters that they are the purveyors of the dysfunction in Washington that caused this mess in the first place,” he said.
Republicans, though, see a powerful tool for turning out their voters. Gallup found that 20 percent of Republicans now cite immigration as a top issue, up from 4 percent earlier this year.
Republican concerns were clear in Iowa, where Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat, and state Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican, are in a tight contest for a U.S. Senate seat.
At a roundtable arranged by McClatchy and The Iowa Republican, a partisan newsletter, in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, eight Republicans cited immigration as the election’s most important issue.
To some, the issue is economic. “I just left college and I have thousands of dollars’ worth of debt, yet there are illegals coming into our country that are demanding free college, and that is an insult to somebody like me, who has worked really hard to pay off their college debt,” said Jake Dagel, an Ankeny human rights activist.
Vinita Smith just wants to feel safe.
“I’m all for immigration,” she said. “But there’s no attempt by the Obama administration to stop people from coming in, and they have no idea who these people are. Are these radical Islamists speeding to the U.S.?”
Gretchen Hamel, Ernst’s spokeswoman, called immigration a top concern and worked to tie Braley to the Obama executive actions that have been put off until after the election, which haven’t yet been detailed.
“Unfortunately, Congressman Bruce Braley has cleared the way for President Obama to grant executive amnesty,” Hamel said.
Democratic voters rarely brought up the issue in Iowa, while Braley’s campaign argued that he’s eager to ease immigration concerns.
Braley is “committed to reaching across the partisan divide to tackle the challenges our nation faces,” said spokesman Sam Lau, while Ernst “would stand with her fellow tea party obstructionists, who only add to Washington’s dysfunction and make the problems worse.”
Of the nine states with close Senate races this year, only Colorado has a sizable Latino voting population, 14 percent. In the others, Hispanics make up less than 5 percent of eligible voters, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
Yet endangered Democratic incumbents in many of those states are well aware of the issue’s power.
Four Democrats in close Senate races sided with Republicans last week on a key immigration procedural vote. Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Mary Landrieu, D-La., Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., joined Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and 45 Republicans in voting yes. The effort, which could have led to other votes curbing Obama’s ability to halt deportations, failed by one vote.
Conservatives called it political posturing by endangered Democrats. “Sen. Hagan’s vote is as phony as it is transparent,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the chairwoman of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.
Not so, said Hagan’s team. “Kay has been clear that she doesn’t believe the president should take executive action on immigration because this is Congress’ responsibility,” said spokeswoman Sadie Weiner.
The issue also flared In New Hampshire. “Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country,” Republican candidate Scott Brown said in a new TV ad. “I want to secure the border.”
Shaheen swung back. “If Scott Brown is concerned about the border, he should call Speaker Boehner and urge him to schedule a vote on the bipartisan immigration reform bill,” said Harrell Kirstein, the senator’s campaign communications director, referring to House of Representatives leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Republicans don’t want to hear about legislative maneuvering. Their message and motivation are simple.
“Secure the border first,” said Kevin Hall, an Iowa Republican activist, “and we can’t trust Democrats to do that.”