Will the Immigration Issue Play a Major Role in the Midterms?

The recent opinion polls on immigration suggest that even Hispanics prefer deportation of the latest wave of young illegals. This will make it easier for Republicans to take a firm line.

A comprehensive Economist/YouGo poll on various issues includes immigration results beginning on page 38. A large majority (2/3 of those who have an opinion) believes the recent wave of immigrants is a result of a perception that amnesty would be available to them if they made it to the United States (page 44) . Only 11% would prefer that the newly arrived be allowed to stay (page 45).

These are very problematic numbers for the administration, which has operated with a Katrina-style befuddlement for weeks over what to do. Obama’s approval numbers have slipped again, at least in part due to the visibility of the border problem, compounded by his mishandling of pretty much every overseas issue.

How will all this impact the midterms? In general, embattled Democratic Senate incumbents in red states (Landrieu, Hagan, Pryor, Begich) have tried to de-nationalize their campaigns, stressing local issues and their “moderate” record. Landrieu may even get an endorsement from the Chamber of Commerce for her generally pro-business record in the past. The closest Senate races remain these four, the Kentucky seat of Mitch McConnell, Colorado (Udall), and the open Iowa seat. A few others -- the open Georgia and Michigan seats -- also seem competitive, though turnover of the seats seems less likely.

The recent immigration brouhaha would seem to be another hot poker iron that Democrats will try to avoid, much as they have generally run from the Affordable Care Act, a bill every Democratic senator supported. While it is not the key issue in any of the tight Senate races, it probably is worth a point or two to Republicans in each of them, maybe more in Colorado, with its rapidly growing Hispanic population.  The states on the frontlines of the border with Mexico where Central Americans are crossing -- Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico -- are not states where any close statewide races seem likely to be defined by this issue this year, though in a few tight House races in Arizona and California, Democratic incumbents may get hit a bit (5 of the 17 tossup House races according to RealClearPolitics.com are Democrat-held seats in the two states).

Democrats, to some extent, are trying to hold on in the Senate, and not lose much in the House, while facing a near perfect-storm environment. Their president is regarded as having either checked out or chosen to ignore the lawn on issues he still cares about; Obamacare is under new assault in the courts and remains at about a 40% support level nationwide; the immigration debate has shifted against the party due to the latest border crossings and the president’s visible indecision about addressing the issue; and foreign policy failures are everywhere.

Administration officials seem to think that announcing a new work program for millions of illegals in the fall right before the election will galvanize a large Hispanic turnout and shift the political landscape.  The “dreamers” push in 2012 helped the Obama re-election effort, but the jury is out on whether something more massive, which will get significant blowback from those arguing the step is either illegal or bypasses Congress’s role in legislating, will be a net positive for Democrats.

In wave election years -- 1994  and 2010 for the Republicans; 2006 and 2008 for the Democrats -- the party riding the wave won almost all the close House and Senate contests, including a few surprise victories. If Republicans have such a year in 2014, part of the tide will be due to concerns about border security. But it will just reinforce a growing sense that the country is lacking a leader.

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)