NEWTON, N.H. — The political battle over the border surge of illegal immigrants is spilling beyond Capitol Hill and onto the campaign trail in the states — with a prime example now playing out here, where Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown is hoping to use the issue to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
In recent days, Mr. Brown, who previously represented Massachusetts in the Senate, has aired television and radio ads and launched an online petition calling on voters to tell President Obama and Mrs. Shaheen that their immigration policies that are “hurting this country.” And he’s stumped on the thorny issue a recent a meet-and-greet at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Kingston.
“We need to secure the border once and for all,” Mr. Brown told reporters following an event here last week at HALO Maritime Defense Systems. “There is a history of the president and Sen. Shaheen and others not being strong on these border and amnesty issues.”
Mrs. Shaheen last week voted for a bill to spend nearly $3 billion on housing and caring for the illegal immigrant children and families surging into Texas.
But that legislation was blocked by Republicans and a handful of Democrats who said it did little to change the policies that are enticing illegal immigrants in the first place — chiefly a 2008 law that requires the government to give put the children through a long judicial process before they can be deported.
Mr. Brown pounced on Mrs. Shaheen’s vote for the bill, saying the proposal is a “travesty.”
“It’s not right, and it’s unfair to the millions of people who are playing by the rules and waiting patiently to enter the country legally,” he said.
Asked the following day whether she thinks Mr. Brown’s attacks will stick, Mrs. Shaheen told The Washington Times, “I think we need to address the challenge of immigration in this country.”
She said that’s why she backed last year’s broad immigration bill, which wouldn’t have addressed the child surge but would have legalized most illegal immigrants already in the U.S. — a bill that drew 14 Republican votes, including New Hampshire’s other senator, Republican Kelly Ayotte.
“That is what I voted for [the 2013 bill]. That is what Kelly voted for it and I am hopeful we can see the House take some action,” Mrs. Shaheen said before quickly jumping into a car.
Mrs. Shaheen’s allies, meanwhile, charge that Mr. Brown’s attacks smack of the desperation of a challenger trailing in the polls.
“His campaign is running negative ads, even attacking fellow Republican Kelly Ayotte’s position on comprehensive immigration reform,” said Julie McClain, spokesperson for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “Facing an uncertain primary and a resistant New Hampshire public, Brown is frantic — and the biggest casualties this week were Kelly Ayotte and his own credibility.”
Far from the border
The immigration issue is popping up in other races far from the Mexican border, including Senate races in Iowa and elsewhere. But even some Republicans here suggest the attacks may not pay off for Mr. Brown.
“I’m sure the polling is on his side: Who is against having a secure border?” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP. “But it’s a cynical play, and I’m disappointed in Brown for using this issue this way. Immigration is a complex issue with a lot of nuance, and border security is just one part of it. He knows that.”
Polls show that Mr. Brown is well-positioned to win the Sept. 9 GOP Senate primary, but that Mrs. Shaheen, a former governor, holds a 10 percentage-point lead over him in a general election matchup.
Still, Mr. Obama’s approval rating has turned negative here, which could cause headaches for Mrs. Shaheen.
“This was always going to be a very competitive race,” said Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist. “But I look at this as he is within striking distance. He is right where I would want him to be.”
The idea that New Hampshire has become a front in the battle over immigration policy could strike some as odd given that it sits nearly 2,000 miles from the U.S.-Mexico southern border, where thousands of families and unaccompanied children from Central America are trying to enter into the United States illegally to escape the violence and poverty in their countries.
But political observers say that Mr. Brown is looking to bolster his conservative credentials among Republicans still wary of him, and who call him a “Republican in Name Only,” or RINO.
“I think it is a strategy to get a certain segment that may think that he is more moderate and that segment may get pretty fired up on that issue,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “It may be a small segment, but if they are fired up to go to the polls on that one issue and he can get their loyalty — he can have success with that.”
James Carville, a Democratic strategist, agreed.
“His strategy is probably that he wants to consolidate his base and branch out more when he gets to the fall,” Mr. Carville said. “He has had a rough go here so far. This has not worked out very well for him, but it is probably something he needs to do to right his ship among core Republicans supporters.”
For his part, Mr. Brown said he “probably” would have opposed the Senate immigration bill and called the Obama administration’s non-deportation policy for “dreamers” — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — a “neon light” for the thousands of illegal immigrants trying to travel across the border.
“We need to compassionately make sure [the children] are safe and secure, and we need to put them back into their own countries,” he said.