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Dems and GOP both see edge in immigration fight

Democrats and Republicans each want to wield the stalemate between President Donald Trump and Congress over immigration as a weapon in November’s congressional elections.

Fanned by tweets from President Donald Trump about a crisis on the Mexican border that others reject as manufactured, each party is using immigration to fire up voters in House races across the country. Democrats think it can help them reach minorities, young people and suburban moderates repelled by Trump’s strident anti-immigrant stances, while Republicans are using promises to crack down on immigration to energize their conservative political base.

Democrats are using the issue to emphasize inclusivity and are targeting border regions, suburbs and areas with immigrant populations. Republicans plan to make immigration a law-and-order issue that appeals to conservatives throughout the U.S.

The debate is likely to roil races in California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, perhaps New Mexico and Virginia’s Washington, D.C., suburbs. One diverse Southern California House district centered on the sprawl of Orange County has already become a testing ground for each party’s strategy.

The retirement of 13-term Republican Rep. Ed Royce makes the seat a prime target for Democrats seeking a 23-seat pickup in November, enough to grab House control.

Seventeen GOP, Democratic and independent candidates are vying in a multiparty June 5 primary, a group that includes a Republican who has worked to scuttle pro-immigrant sanctuary city laws. It also features a Democrat who fled Vietnam as a child and whose campaign website praises “the open arms of a country” that offered “my shot at the American Dream.”

Trump has tweeted this week about “ridiculous” laws making it hard to send arrivals from Mexico “back where they came from.” On Wednesday, he signed a proclamation directing National Guard troops to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democrats think Trump’s harsh stance will send liberal, minority and moderate voters their way. Although the economy and health care register higher as voter concerns, Democrats see advantages from touting Congress’ attempt to shield young “Dreamer” immigrants from deportation.

That effort collapsed in February after Trump rejected $25 billion to build his treasured border wall with Mexico in exchange for offering possible citizenship for Dreamers who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children and who have been temporarily protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“Immigration is one of those cultural touchstone issues” that shows Democrats are ready to “stand up to Trump,” said Mike Lux, a liberal Democratic consultant.

Democrats say GOP incumbents vulnerable to attacks over immigration include Reps. Carlos Curbelo of South Florida, David Valadao of California’s Central Valley and Will Hurd of West Texas. Their districts are around 70 percent Hispanic.

While the U.S. population is around 18 percent Hispanic, 62 congressional districts had at least double that mark in 2016, the most recent breakdown available, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Underscoring how Hispanics tend to vote Democratic, just 13 of those districts are represented by Republicans, three of whom are retiring: Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, New Mexico’s Steve Pearce and Texas’ Blake Farenthold.

The GOP position on the issue isn’t monolithic.

Over two dozen Republican moderates are co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill by Hurd and others to protect “Dreamers” and strengthen border security. Over 40 are backing an attempt by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., to prod House leaders to permit votes on several immigration measures. Both efforts seem like longshots but let backers underscore their willingness to compromise.

Other Republicans envision sharply conservative campaigns raising the specter of sanctuary cities, where local authorities limit cooperation with federal immigration officials, and casting such policies as enabling immigrants in the U.S. illegally to commit crimes and grab jobs. That could help with conservatives nationwide, including places like Arizona and northern and central Florida, they say.

Many voters view Democrats “as the party of protecting illegals over citizens,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political committee aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “This issue works across the country.”

Bliss’ group ran TV ads attacking Democrat Conor Lamb on immigration in the waning weeks of last month’s special election in an open, overwhelmingly white House district in western Pennsylvania that heavily backed Trump in 2016.

The spots said Lamb favors “amnesty to millions of immigrants” and as an Obama administration official encouraged sanctuary cities, “which put illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the street.”

Lamb won narrowly. But such arguments could help Republicans energize conservatives concerned about “the proliferation of non-English speaking people in this culture, a sense that we’re losing what America used to be,” said GOP strategist Whit Ayers.

In California, Shawn Nelson is among several GOP contenders running in the Orange County contest. A member of the county board of supervisors, Nelson helped push that body to join a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s sanctuary law.

“Even if you’re not seeing illegals crossing the border into your state, they’re potentially stealing your jobs, they’re potentially making you less safe,” John Thomas, Nelson’s chief strategist, said of the issue’s appeal.

One of Nelson’s Democratic opponents is Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician who was evacuated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975.

Tran policy adviser Jack Hipkins says her message that America is “supposed to be open and inclusive and diverse” could attract Republicans displeased with the party’s harsh tone. The district is roughly evenly divided among whites, Hispanics and Asians.

The top two finishers in the primary will meet in the Nov. 6 election.

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