Several Republican operatives and officials described a growing sense of fear within the party over Trump’s hardline rhetoric on border security, which he has repeated nearly every day for the past three weeks.
“You’re playing at the margins with Republicans on the issue of immigration, but there are very many more Democrats that might be mobilized by his rhetoric,” said conservative radio host and RedState editor Erick Erickson, who called Trump’s immigration-heavy closing pitch “not smart politically” in a tweet earlier Thursday.
Operating under the assumption that talking tough on immigration can energize enough Republicans to stymie a “blue wave” of Democratic midterm voters, Trump has spent the past week unveiling restrictive immigration policies at a dizzying pace and making erroneous declarations about a caravan of Central American migrants.
“Because such language worked for Trump in his bid for the presidency two years ago, he firmly believes it carries the same weight with conservatives and right-leaning independents this election season, according to two sources close to the White House.
“This isn’t an innocent group of people,” Trump said of the thousands-strong caravan in a rambling speech from the Roosevelt Room on Thursday, warning that it contained men who had injured Mexican security officers in clashes in that country.
Trump’s remarks loosely described an impending executive order which he said would bar asylum claims from immigrants who cross into the U.S. illegally, and urged them to “turn back now because they’re wasting their time.”
Restating his vow to deploy thousands more troops to the southwest border, Trump fumed over border-crossers and said he had instructed U.S. military personnel to “consider it a rifle” if incoming migrants hurl stones at them: “Anybody throwing stones, rocks… we will consider that a firearm because there’s not much difference when you get hit in the face with a rock.”
The speech came on a day when he tweeted a dramatic campaign ad featuring an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who murdered two California sheriff’s deputies in 2014 and laughed about it in a courtroom. “Democrats let him into our country,” the ad declares.
Democrats slammed the ad as exploiting stereotypes about immigrants, and even some Republicans condemned it.
“This is a sickening ad. Republicans everywhere should denounce it,” tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a frequent Trump critic.
Flake is retiring, but congressional Republicans battling for political survival in swing districts with large clusters of college-educated voters and women have grown increasingly worried that such groups are having trouble stomaching what Trump is dishing up.
“The kind of voters Trump is talking to right now, there aren’t enough of them in these areas to get us over the finish line,” said one GOP campaign official.
“We understand this is an issue that motivates his base, but the economic issues are what we really need to win these swing voters because they are who’s going to decide who controls the House,” the official told POLITICO, adding that Trump “is solidifying swing voters who were already leaning Democratic and are now definitely going vote for Democratic candidates.”
Top Republican leaders have long urged Trump to make better use his rallies by highlighting the strong economy and reminding voters of the extra cash in their pockets from last year’s GOP tax cuts. As opposed to stoking fear over an “immigration crisis”, they want him to boast about the unemployment rate slipping below 4 percent, middle-class incomes returning to pre-recession levels, and surging consumer confidence.
Concerns about the president re-focusing attention on illegal immigration have reached a fever pitch in districts with large numbers of Latino eligible voters, who’ve become exceedingly angry at the Trump administration’s immigration agenda.
“There’s just not enough base voters in a place like Miami to hand Carlos Curbelo a win,” said one Republican operative, pointing to a recent New York Times poll showing Curbelo, the GOP incumbent, trailing his Democratic opponent by a single percentage point in Florida’s 26th congressional district, which is nearly 70 percent Latino.
Some Republicans retiring from districts won by Hillary Clinton have also expressed dismay at the president’s decidedly anti-illegal immigrant closing argument.
“The bloc of competitive [Republican-held] districts less impacted by POTUS thus far are those with high # of immigrants. So now POTUS, out of nowhere, brings birthright citizenship up. Besides being basic tenet of America, it’s political malpractice,” said retiring GOP Rep. Ryan Costello, whose suburban Philadelphia district is ranked “solid D” by FiveThirtyEight.
Costello was referring to Trump’s vow this week to issue an executive order ending the Constitutional guarantee of citizenship for people born within the U.S.
Meanwhile, Democrats are claiming that Trump’s immigration obsession is only throwing momentum to their side.
“Two or three weeks ago, the number one thing people were quietly worried about was apathy or low turnout with Latino voters and you’re not hearing that anymore,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a bipartisan immigration advocacy group.
He added: “This is a reminder of a thing they like least about this administration and you’re seeing that show up. Public opinion polls on the House have moved away from Republicans in the last two weeks and if you look at where that’s coming from, it’s the president’s hard-line rhetoric.”
No generic ballot poll has directly linked the president’s immigration talk to a pro-Democratic voter shift. But recent studies have shown that Americans see immigration as among the nation’s most divisive issue, in addition to it being a policy area Trump has mishandled, according to voters in some states with key midterm races.
An MPR News/Star Tribune poll taken last month in Minnesota, where both Senate seats are up for grabs and Republicans are competing for the governor’s mansion, found that 52 percent of likely voters disapprove of the president’s direction on immigration, versus 42 percent who approve.
Trump may also be betting too much on the all-around importance of immigration to voters who are not already a part of his base.
“There is a large partisan intensity gap on immigration, with Republicans and supporters of President Donald Trump assigning much higher priority to the issue than Democrats and Hillary Clinton voters,” wrote Republican pollster and strategist Patrick Ruffini in an October report about Americans’ attitudes toward the issue.
Still, the president clearly believes he has a winning formula on his hands.
“Once they arrive, the Democrat Party’s vision is to offer them free health care, free welfare, free education and even the right to vote,” Trump said Thursday of the caravan of migrants, many of whom are fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty in their own home countries.
“You and the hardworking taxpayers of our country will be asked to pick up the entire tab,” he warned.