Border top issue for statewide GOP hopefuls

Border top issue for statewide GOP hopefuls

FILE – In this March 2, 2019, file photo, a Customs and Border Control agent patrols on the U.S. side of a razor-wire-covered border wall along the Mexico east of Nogales, Ariz.  (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel,File)

“Chaos. Crisis. Children dropped alone in the desert,” U.S. Senate candidate Jim Lamon said, over grim, grainy images in a political ad showing people crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. “In only 100 days, open border politicians like Chuck Schumer and Mark Kelly created a disaster.” 

Lamon, who paid more than $100,000 to take out the ad in late spring, is one of several candidates seeking the Republican nomination to run against Kelly, one of Arizona’s two Democratic U.S. senators. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee apparently sees the border as a winning issue as well and has taken out several ads seeking to tie Kelly to the Biden administration’s policies and the increase in the number of people trying to enter the country.  

And the other Republicans running for Senate are sticking to the same simple message as Lamon when it comes to border security – the border is a mess, President Biden is to blame and a return to former President Trump’s approach is needed. 

“I think the solution is actually quite simple,” U.S. Senate candidate Justin Olson said in an interview. “We need to reinstate the policies of the Trump administration. The ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy for asylum seekers was a significant deterrent to illegal immigration. We need to finish the wall. We need to properly fund the Border Patrol. We need the National Guard on the border. We need universal E-verify requirements for all employers and employer sanctions for those who do not comply.” 

Jim Lamon speaks on July 5, 2021, with supporters at a “Stand for Freedom” rally at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Scottsdale Resort in Scottsdale. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/THE STAR NEWS NETWORK

Blake Masters’ Twitter header picture is a photo of the border wall. Attorney General Mark Brnovich has been suing the Biden administration over its border policies every chance he gets. Mick McGuire sent out a fundraising email on November 1, saying that while he was doing an interview with a local TV station in Yuma, an illegal immigrant crossed the border behind him right in front of the cameras. 

“Joe Biden’s open border policies have made these people fearless,” McGuire wrote. “They are willing to cross our border out in the open for everyone to see.” 

With border issues, Republican candidates seem to think they have a good message that’s going to resonate with the right people. Chuck Coughlin, a longtime GOP consultant, said polling shows immigration is the top issue among Republican voters. And, he said, “I believe they’re (Democrats) going to be vulnerable on those issues.” 

Although immigration and border security are largely federal responsibilities, they have long been a factor in state-level elections in Arizona as well. Republican governors throughout the country, including Arizona’s Doug Ducey, have been among the most visible critics of the Biden administration when it comes to the border.  

Earlier this year Ducey sent the Arizona National Guard to the border – drawing criticism from many Arizona legislative Democrats but with the support of the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly.  

Republican state legislators routinely decry illegal immigration from the House and Senate floors and call for increased border security. This year they appropriated $55 million to support the National Guard mission and to assist local law enforcement at the border. 

In this May 19, 2021 file photo the border wall stretches along the landscape near Sasabe, Ariz. PHOTO BY ROSS D. FRANKLIN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

And the Republicans running for governor are beating the same drum as their Senate counterparts. Kari Lake and Matt Salmon have both promised to finish the border wall themselves if the feds won’t do it. 

In a radio interview in late October, Salmon said, “I’ve said repeatedly when I get elected governor the first press conference I do is with a post-hole digger on the border, because if the feds aren’t going to do it, we’ll get it done. And if we have to offset and put it on state land to get that done, then we’ll get that done,” adding that finishing the wall will also require negotiating with the Indian tribes since much of the border is on tribal lands. 

Coughlin said ideas like the state finishing its own border wall are far-fetched, but could still be politically advantageous. 

“I don’t think there’s any credibility to the issue of Arizona could do the wall … but that doesn’t prevent elected officials playing to the peanut gallery in order to advance their own popularity,” he said. 

Border security is one issue where Kelly, who narrowly won a special election last year and is running for a full term in 2022, has sought to emphasize his more centrist views and put some distance between himself and other Democrats. 

Mark Kelly speaks with supporters at the Phoenix launch of his U.S. Senate campaign on Feb. 24, 2019, at The Van Buren in Phoenix. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/THE STAR NEWS NETWORK

In a statement after Biden’s first address to Congress in April, Kelly criticized Biden for not laying out a plan to address the increase in crossings and referred to the influx as a “crisis.” Kelly has also called for dedicating more federal resources to border enforcement, introducing a bill earlier this year to boost Department of Homeland Security funding to make sure money spent caring for migrants doesn’t take away from funding for security. More generally, Kelly has portrayed the situation as a bipartisan policy failure that spans administrations. 

“The federal government has failed Arizona and other border states on this issue for decades,” Kelly told the White Mountain Independent in October. “We don’t have the border security we need. We need more staffing at the border, more border agents, and the border control agents we have need to be in the field. We need more technology at the border, and more immigration judges. This (situation) has been a failure in Washington, one administration after another.” 

The Democrats running for governor have put less of a focus on the border than the Republicans have. The campaigns of Democratic candidates Katie Hobbs, Aaron Lieberman and Marco Lopez did not respond to questions or interview requests by our deadline. 

Lieberman said in an interview with Yuma public radio station KAWC in September that border security is a federal responsibility, not a state one. 

“At the same time, I want to make sure that we have a secure border, that we know who’s coming across the border (and) that we have a process for doing that,” he said. 

Julie Erfle, a liberal political consultant and commentator, said Democratic candidates should be thinking about shifting conversations away from the border to issues like education. “I think Democrats need to do a better job of setting the message,” she said. 

Still, Erfle added: “they don’t have to punt on the border, either.” A winning message for Democratic candidates on border issues, she said, will emphasize that border enforcement matters, but so does immigration policy reform and addressing humanitarian issues. 

Hobbs tweeted in late October, after visiting Nogales to meet with Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway, that she is committed to listening to the affected communities and learning about the problems. 

“The situation at our border puts pressure on all our communities,” Hobbs said. “We have to reduce illegal border crossings in a way that promotes security and safety for everyone and most efficiently uses taxpayers’ dollars. Arizonans need a leader who is learning from the officials who are on the front lines and understand this important issue best.” 

Lopez is the one candidate with roots in Arizona’s border region, something his campaign has emphasized, but his past work as chief of staff for U.S. Customs and Border Protection could be a stumbling-block for progressive voters. Even so, Erfle said Lopez doesn’t need to worry as much about countering criticism of his work for the federal border agency as he focuses on getting voters energized about his vision for Arizona. 

Coughlin, the GOP consultant, added that Democrats might try to shift the conversation from border security to the social and economic impacts of an immigration system that’s been broken for years. 

“If I were a Democrat, that’s what I’d be trying to talk about,” he said. “Not the failure of the Biden administration to maintain operational security at the border.”