WASHINGTON — One ad in the Kansas race for Senate depicts shadowy men climbing a barbed-wire fence as a narrator warns that “illegal immigration is threatening our communities and taking jobs away from Kansans who need them.”
Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator running for Senate in New Hampshire, has run three border security ads, and cautioned that a “porous” border poses an Ebola threat.
And in Texas, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor produced an ad showing a caravan of Middle Easterners waving flags and brandishing high-caliber weapons, while claiming that “ISIS terrorists threaten to cross our border and kill Americans.”
The ads come less than two years after the Republican National Committee, following Mitt Romney’s loss, issued a report vowing to treat immigration issues differently, offering Hispanic voters “a more welcoming, inclusive message” and “positive solutions on immigration.”
But the party has not unified behind that message. Several Republican candidates are now attacking their opponents for supporting a sweeping 2013 immigration bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support and was cowritten by several prominent Republicans, including Senators John McCain of Arizona, the failed 2008 presidential candidate, and Marco Rubio of Florida, a possible future presidential candidate.
As a result, some Republicans worry that while the party might be helped by such rhetoric in the midterms, it could haunt the GOP in 2016 and complicate the party’s efforts to remold its image to Hispanic voters.
“Unfortunately, this is like the fourth act of a play that Republicans keep using,” said John Weaver, a Republican consultant who advised McCain during part of his 2008 presidential run. “Playing on the fear of some Ebola-carrying, ISIS terrorist — marching from Brownsville, Texas, to Des Moines — they think they can play on that image and that fear. And they’re going to take advantage of it, even though it does long-term damage across the board.”
Those who believe border security is a winner for Republicans have had much material to work with — firsta summer border crisis when tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children crossed, then new tensions with Islamic militants, and finally, when the first Americans contracted Ebola.
“ISIS and Ebola, whether you believe these are actual risk factors or not, they are political realities,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant based in Florida. “They have changed the political dynamic.”
Many Republicans who have played up border issues come from states with relatively small Hispanic populations, such as Arkansas or New Hampshire, where Brown, who did not respond to a request for comment, has accused his Democratic opponent Jeanne Shaheen of supporting amnesty.
Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican in an unexpectedly tough fight in Kansas, released an immigration-themed ad in late September attempting to undermine his opponent Greg Orman’s credentials as an independent.
The ad shows Orman next to a fence, interspersed with pictures of President Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and accuses Orman of siding with them to “support giving amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.”
Representative Tom Cotton, a Republican challenging Senator Mark Pryor in Arkansas, ran an ad using footage of Obama talking about a “pathway to earned citizenship for 11 million individuals who are already in this country illegally.”
The Washington Post’s fact-checker gave Cotton “four Pinocchios” for comments tying a lax border to the threat of Islamic terrorists collaborating with Mexican drug cartels to “attack us right here in places like Arkansas.”
In some instances, Republicans in states with larger Hispanic populations have reached out to Hispanic voters. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a Republican, last week appeared in three US Chamber of Commerce ads for House and Senate candidates in California, Arizona, and Colorado — speaking in fluent Spanish.
Though most disagree on the merits, Obama and other Democrats have shown concern over the border issue’s short-term political potency.
Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat trying to unseat Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, drew criticism from liberals last week for running an ad that attacks McConnell for “voting to give amnesty and taxpayer-funded benefits to 3 million illegal immigrants.”
The ad, defending Grimes from conservative attacks on the issue, refers to his support for Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration overhaul. He voted against the 2013 bill.
The White House, meanwhile, appears to be worried about a backlash. Obama last month delayed executive action to liberalize immigration policy until after the election, which infuriated immigration advocates and struck many on both sides of the debate as a political calculation meant to shield vulnerable Democrats.
Many Republicans have denounced Obama’s proposed moves — including potentially delaying deportations and granting more people temporary residence — as an unconstitutional power grab that will reward those here illegally.
Indeed, Obama has his own problems on the issue, potentially giving Republicans an opening. Obama won approval from just 29 percent of voters for his performance on immigration, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week, his worst issue in the poll. His approval among Hispanics dropped from 75 percent in December 2012 to 52 percent in November 2013, according to a Gallup poll.
But in a general election, when turnout is greater and more diverse states have a larger influence, the recent tough talk on immigration could hurt Republicans. Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2012 presidential bid, according to exit polls.
“We can’t ignore demographics as a party,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican strategist in Mississippi who helped write the “autopsy” report after Romney’s loss. “The percentage of our traditional-base white voters goes down every cycle, every four-year cycle, just a little bit more.”
Matt Barreto, cofounder of the Hispanic polling firm Latino Decisions, said Republicans should look closely at California, where many Hispanic voters associate the GOP with Proposition 187, a sweeping 1994 ballot measure that cracked down on illegal immigrants’ use of state services.
While passion behind the measure helped Republican Governor Pete Wilson win reelection in California that year, demographic changes have since inflicted severe damage on the party.
“The Republican Party branded itself as the anti-immigrant party just as the Latino vote was poised to double,” said Barreto, whose firm works with many immigration rights groups.
“They may win in ’14 and they may think ‘Oh, this is a successful strategy,’ ” Barreto said. “Looking at the data, we have a hard way figuring out how they’re going to get enough electoral college votes on an anti-immigrant platform in 2016.”
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Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.