The Republican National Committee headquarters, Sept. 9, 2014.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

For their midterm message, Republicans prioritize immigration, not tax cuts

Shortly before Christmas, as the Republicans’ regressive tax plan was poised to clear Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) looked ahead to the 2018 midterms with some confidence. “If we can’t sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work,” he said at the time.

In retrospect, it’s funny the GOP leader put it that way – because his party is barely even trying to sell the Republican tax breaks for the wealthy as part of its 2018 message. As USA Today  reported this week, GOP officials and candidates have instead decided the key to their electoral fortunes is a focus on immigration.

House Republican candidates are blanketing the airwaves with TV ads embracing a hard line on immigration – a dramatic shift from the midterm elections in 2014, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from Kantar Media.

Republicans have aired more than 14,000 campaign ads touting a tough Trump-style immigration platform this year. The barrage underscores why House GOP leaders worry that passing a legislative fix for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, referred to as DREAMers, would put GOP candidates at risk heading into the fall election.

At a campaign rally in Nashville this week, Donald Trump argued that even his “enemies” are “begrudgingly admitting” that he’s the most accomplished president in American history after a year and a half in office. That’s obviously ridiculous, but what’s notable about the Republicans’ midterm strategy is that the party sees little value in touting the White House’s alleged accomplishments.

Instead, voters are hearing a Republican message that emphasizes “sanctuary cities,” “MS-13,” and calls for a “border wall.”

Or put another way, GOP officials have apparently decided that after a year and a half of governing, the best way to stay in office is to point to an issue they’ve done little to address.

The president is thinking along similar lines. At an event last month in West Virginia, Trump was supposed to read from a carefully crafted script about the greatness of his tax cuts. Instead, he literally threw the script in the air, described his talking points as “boring,” and proceeded to complain incessantly about immigration.

This week in Tennessee, he also spent some time assuring supporters that he’d get Mexico to pay for a giant border wall, before insisting that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is actually an “MS-13 lover.”

As a matter of political strategy, this is a relatively straightforward dynamic: Republicans realize that their tax plan is still unpopular and won’t help them win. They also realize that they have very little else to show for their efforts.

More to the point, GOP leaders understand all too well that nothing seems to motivate their party’s base like an anti-immigration message. That, coupled with some demagogic fear tactics, might help tilt the scales in Republicans’ favor.

Of course, in Virginia’s gubernatorial race last year, Ed Gillespie was under the same impression. The GOP nominee, after narrowly wining a primary against an anti-immigration extremist, effectively threw out his platform and ran ads featuring scary images of non-white people with tattoos on their faces.

After the election, Gillespie reflected on his tactics, saying, “Are those the issues I would have chosen to run on as opposed to the tax cuts and frankly even the criminal justice reform innovative proposals I put forward? That’s what I’d rather the race had been about, but those weren’t what was indicating was going to move numbers and help me win.”

Republicans at the national level who are making the same calculus should try to remember that Gillespie, after losing by nine points, wished he’d chosen a different path.