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Republicans’ Midterm Play: Scare Up Another Border Crisis

They’re even talking about impeaching the DHS secretary. And Senate Democratic incumbents in purple states are running away from the White House.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the Mexico border
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy leads a group of fellow Republicans on a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border on April 25, in Eagle Pass, Texas.

When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy touched down in Texas on Monday to lead a flock of Republican lawmakers on a tour of the Southern border, he wanted to hammer one specific attack line. 

“If President Biden wants to lift Title 42, he should come down here,” McCarthy said, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times on Monday. McCarthy was referring to the Trump administration–era policy that restricted border crossings during the coronavirus pandemic. “Before he makes this decision, he should look … the border agents in the eye and ask them what’s the best decision to make.”

Later that day, Axios reported that some of McCarthy’s colleagues are plotting to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in the likely scenario that Republicans take control of the House of Representatives. The last time a Cabinet secretary was successfully impeached (technically, he resigned hours before the vote), Ulysses S. Grant was president. 

And on Tuesday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out its latest attack email, bashing Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada for admitting to “flip-flopping her position on Title 42.” The Republican Senate campaign-arm email said that in the face of bad poll numbers, Cortez Masto said she actually supported the Trump-era policy, contra the Biden administration.

“We appreciate Catherine Cortez Masto being ‘pretty clear’ about her flip flop. Now let us be clear, too: Masto does not support maintaining Title 42,” the email read. “In the summer of 2020, she penned a letter to the Trump Administration urging for an end to what she called the ‘CDC asylum ban.’ And in August of 2021, Masto voted to end Title 42 immediately and without a plan. At every turn, Masto has voted for Joe Biden’s open borders without border security agenda.”

Shortly thereafter, Donald Trump’s political action committee sent one of his trademark emails linking to a Washington Examiner article titled “Biden’s border neglect has caused a national security and drug crisis.”

See a pattern here? Most liberals and Democrats probably think the midterms will be mostly about inflation, and that may be so, but if you follow the right-wing media, you’ll hear the word “border” just about as often. 

Republicans see Title 42, and the border generally, as their preferred attack strategy for some of the most vulnerable incumbent senators across the country up for reelection this cycle. They’re trying to use it as a tool either to split red-state incumbent Democrats from the Biden administration or to bash those candidates and lawmakers as flip-floppers or tone-deaf Democrats who turn a blind eye to border security. Democratic candidates in some of the most high-profile races in the country, meanwhile, have been trying to figure out some sort of middle ground between abandoning the Biden administration but not fulfilling Republican caricatures of them on immigration policy.

/  In honor of Earth Day, TNR’s climate coverage is free to registered users until April 29. Start reading now.

The focus on border security and Title 42 isn’t exclusive to a single region. In recent weeks, Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire has tried to insulate herself from these kinds of attacks with less than ideal results. 

But the pressure is greatest in the Southwest. In Arizona, Senator Mark Kelly has joined with his more conservative fellow United States senator from Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, in introducing legislation that would delay the Biden administration from lifting Title 42. That move underscores Kelly’s positioning as a senator willing sometimes to break with rank and file Democrats and the Biden administration. Hassan has also signed onto the legislation, which is backed by five Republicans.

Other Democrats running for statewide office, like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs in Arizona and Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, have made similar moves.

But Kelly is a major target. On Thursday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a new $1 million advertising campaign linking Kelly to Biden on the policy. The NRSC has been shooting out a steady stream of similar ads. The committee’s logic is that Kelly actually supports Biden’s position because he voted against an amendment in August that directed the Department of Homeland Security to expel immigrants who came into the U.S. illegally and might have contributed to Covid-19 spreading in the nation. Kelly’s campaign responded to CNN that he “has delivered increased border security resources, introduced bipartisan legislation to address the crisis, and has stood up to both the Biden administration and his own party to ensure a safe, humane, and orderly process at the border.”  

Recent polling shows why Republicans are so eager to bash Democrats on Title 42. An early April Morning Consult poll found 56 percent of registered voters oppose lifting Title 42. Broken down by party, 78 percent of Republicans said they strongly opposed lifting it and 42 percent of Democrats agreed. And more broadly, Gallup Polling found that four in 10 Americans are very concerned about illegal immigration.

The Biden administration also felt a setback on Monday when a federal judge vowed to block the president from lifting the rule on May 23. But Biden administration officials have shown no interest in dropping their plan. On Tuesday, the administration released its own outline for what it planned to do after lifting Title 42—if it can. Senior officials told reporters that the Biden administration would comply with the court’s ruling.

The plan, if the Biden administration gets its way, is for DHS to boost resources (like medical facilities, transportation, and personnel) to border operations. Over 600 people from other government agencies would help U.S. Customs and Border Protection. According to a memo laying out the plan, DHS, alongside the State Department, would work with other governments to “create a more cohesive and comprehensive approach to managing migratory flows across the region.” 

What frightens these Democrats seeking reelection is that lifting Title 42 will lead to a border crisis that Republicans can exploit in November. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said it is the only thing stopping a “devastating flood of illegal immigration.” Democrats have offered only somewhat more cautious criticism.

Hassan has warned that the Biden administration “does not appear ready” for the influx of immigrants that would follow lifting the law. Senator Joe Manchin also said that lifting Title 42 would be a “frightening” move by the Biden administration. Kelly and Cortez Masto have offered more measured critiques. Cortez Masto has said, “It’s just wrong to do it without a detailed plan.” Kelly has warned that he has not seen a satisfying plan to receive the influx of immigrants who would come as a result of lifting the law. Kelly has told immigration officials that “they do not have a plan in place on how to deal with the increased numbers. And it’s going to be … to be honest, it’s going to be a crisis on top of a crisis.”

Sawyer Hackett, a veteran Democratic strategist and senior adviser to Julian Castro, said the remedy for Senate Democrats is not to oppose or try to find a middle ground. It’s to side with the Biden administration and better educate the public.   

“I just feel like this is a giant miscalculation from these Senate candidates because the public obviously doesn’t have the best understanding of what Title 42 is and what it does. If these candidates were making an affirmative case for what asylum is in this country—that is the system we’ve had in place for decades where the United States can be a place of refuge for people fleeing desperate situations, that would be a thing that people support,” Hackett said. “People overwhelmingly support asylum as a thing, but instead of making that case Democrats are just, once again, running away from the issue, treating immigration as a third-rail issue.”

We’re seeing the familiar dynamic of Republicans doing red-hot base-stoking politics while vulnerable Democrats go looking for the middle. It’s possible that in these purple states, voters will respond positively to that moderation. It’s also possible that the states’ base voters will be put off by candidates who seem too afraid to side with their own president on an issue on which the right is fearmongering. And border fearmongering doesn’t always work: Donald Trump couldn’t make that fearsome caravan a decisive issue in 2018. But that was when the liberal base was fired up, which it sure isn’t now.