(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s policy separating families who enter the U.S. illegally has caught 2018 Republican candidates between an anti-immigration party base that favors Trump’s hard line and the majority of Americans who object to a policy widely criticized as cruel.
The “zero tolerance” punishment imposed by the administration has delivered harrowing footage of wailing toddlers to American living rooms less than five months before voters decide which party should control Congress.
"A picture is worth a thousand words, and a graphic picture is always potent on this kind of issue. For the Republicans, getting this monkey off their back is critical,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who chaired the party’s election arm. “Especially for members in swing districts.”
Some of those swing districts, in states including New York, New Jersey, Florida and California, will determine whether Democrats take the 23 seats from Republicans that they’d need to gain control of the House. Republicans in those races will have to choose whether to defend or defy Trump on a deeply polarizing issue that could hurt them with constituencies such as suburban women, independent voters and Hispanics.
The growing furor also is drowning out the GOP’s preferred campaign message about a booming economy on the week of the six-month anniversary of the Trump tax cuts.
It’s not necessarily an easy choice.
“For the Republican base, if you resolve this wrongly it’s really going to hurt your turnout,” Davis said. “They’re nervous about people saying ‘you sold out.’”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky downplayed the prospect of political harm to his party. “It’s not going to tar anybody,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters. “We’re going to fix the problem.” But he noted that any solution has to be bipartisan to pass the Senate and it wasn’t clear Tuesday after a series of meetings whether that could be achieved.
Three polls released this week said most Americans oppose the Trump policy, which requires the prosecution of all adults crossing the border outside of an official port of entry and thereby sends children to be housed elsewhere. Approval stood at just 28 percent in a CNN poll, 27 percent in a Quinnipiac poll and 27 percent in an Ipsos poll, all driven by overwhelming opposition from Democrats and independents.
But Republicans supported the policy — by a margin of 58 percent to 34 percent in the CNN poll, by 55 percent to 35 percent in the Quinnipiac poll, and by 46 percent to 32 percent in the Ipsos poll. Immigration was a central force in Trump’s rise after he catered to a hunger among core supporters for tough punishments on illegal entry and cuts to legal immigration, including among asylum-seekers.
“I run campaigns all over the country and in every poll we run -- in every district, no matter where it is -- the No. 1 issue for Republicans is immigration. It’s not even close,” said Harlan Hill, a Republican consultant and adviser to Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. “It’s critical to the president’s identity. He obviously ran on this. He opened up his entire campaign on this issue. So voters are quite frankly holding his feet to the fire.”
Hill urged Republicans not to "abdicate our principles" and warned that "wavering" on enforcing immigration law will demoralize supporters and hurt the GOP in the election. He said that when it comes to the border crisis, "communication around this issue has been fumbled" and that "it didn’t have to be this political bomb that it turned out to be." But he said it can be an opportunity to get a broad package that conservatives like.
The issue looms large in pivotal House districts near the southern border with large Hispanic populations where immigration is a top-of-mind issue, including a half-dozen competitive races in southern and central California, two in south Florida, one seat in the area of Aurora, Colorado, and several in south Texas. It also impacts competitive Senate race in Nevada, where Republican incumbent Dean Heller is seeking to hold on to his seat, and an open seat in Arizona, as well as the reelection bid of GOP Senator Ted Cruz.
"If we don’t address this issue it’s going to have a massive impact on races across Harris County," said Jay Zeidman, a Republican donor based in Houston. "These images we see are horrific and we need to address this issue now in a humane way."
In an illustration of the partisan divide, all 49 Senate Democrats are united in support of legislation by California’s Dianne Feinstein that prohibits agents from separating families near the border, except in extreme cases like abuse and trafficking. But it has zero Republicans supporters; Senator Susan Collins of Maine rejected it as "far too broad" in protecting illegal border-crossings. Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Trump ally on immigration, ridiculed it as the “Child Trafficking Encouragement Act.”
Nervousness is palpable within the GOP as many lawmakers break with the president. Cruz said he’s “horrified” by the stories from the border. Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado expressed openness to supporting Feinstein’s proposal, saying that “tearing children from the arms of parents and then isolating them along is antithetical to the America I grew up in." Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, called for “a more compassionate answer.”
Trump showed no remorse as he digs into red-meat issues like immigration and crime, with overwrought attacks on Democrats to fire up his supporters ahead of the midterm election.
“Democrats love open borders. Let the whole world come in. Let the whole world — MS-13, gang members from all over the place, come on in, we have open borders,” the president said in a speech at the National Federation of Independent Business.
He called Congress to give him “the legal authority to detain and properly remove families together as a unit. We have to be able to do this."
"This is the only solution to the border crisis," he said.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.