Immigration reform has stalled on Capitol Hill, but it lives on in campaigns across the country this year where Democrats are citing it as a key litmus test of Republicans’ bipartisan credentials.
From Alaska to Iowa, Democrats are turning the immigration debate from a question of legalization and amnesty into a debate over willingness to cross party lines on tough issues — and say Republican candidates who oppose the Senate bill have shown they can’t be trusted to work in a bipartisan manner.
“With disgust at Washington at a all-time high, or low, depending on how you look at it, I think it makes sense for Democrats to remind voters as much as possible that if the Republican Party wasn’t dominated by a bunch of extremists, Congress could do much more to help address the problems facing the country,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist.
In Georgia, where the immigration bill itself may not be too popular, Democratic Senate nominee Michelle Nunn is still pressing the attack, arguing that Republican nominee David Perdue’s refusal to back the legislation shows he can’t be trusted to find bipartisan solutions.
“This is probably one of the sharper contrasts you that will find between David and myself,” Mrs. Nunn said in a candidates forum. “I think David embraces what I believe is the attitude of gridlock in Washington that has not enabled us to get this done.”
The Senate bill was written by the Gang of Eight senators, four Democrats and four Republicans, and would have legalized most of the estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants already in the country, while also boosting legal immigration to help businesses find workers. It passed on a 68-32 vote, with all Democrats and 14 Republicans supporting it — but it has failed to gain traction in the House, where the GOP has refused to bring it up for a vote.
Democrats from President Obama on down have said the bill symbolizes the fate of bipartisanship in Washington, praising Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona — the four Republicans who co-wrote the legislation.
In Iowa’s Senate race this year, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley has prodded Republican nominee Joni Ernst to say whether she would have joined the GOP architects of the bill, known by its legislative number, S.744.
“The Braley campaign has contrasted Braley’s bipartisan accomplishments against Ernst’s obstructionism,” said Jeff Link, who is advising the Braley camp. “This is another issues where that frame works.”
And in Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich, an incumbent Democrat who voted for the legislation, questioned why Republican nominee Dan Sullivan wouldn’t back a bill that had the support of Mr. Rubio.
Republican candidates reject the immigration bill as a proxy for bipartisanship, saying the real gridlock problem in Washington stems from Senate Democrats’ chief, Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“I am getting a little bored hearing this, ‘I am going to work across the aisle,’ when nobody on the Democratic side has decided they want to work across the aisle with Republicans in the United States Senate,” Mr. Perdue replied to Mrs. Nunn’s attacks at a debate last week.
He said bipartisanship would require Mrs. Nunn standing up to President Obama and Mr. Reid.
“You say you want to be a team builder, a conciliator, but you will not bite the hand that feeds you,” Mr. Perdue said.
And even some of the Gang of Eight are split on the meaning of the bill.
Mr. Rubio, preparing for a possible presidential bid in 2016, has distanced himself from S. 744, saying he now prefers the House GOP approach of splitting the immigration issue into pieces and tackling them one at a time, rather than stuffing them all into the same massive bill.
Mr. Graham has criticized Mr. Rubio for his change, saying his reluctance to stick by the bill shows he is too green to be president.
“He’s a good guy, but after doing immigration with him — we don’t need another young guy not quite ready,” Mr. Graham told the Weekly Standard. “He’s no Obama by any means, but he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let that go.”
Mr. Graham, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Susan Collins of Maine are the only three senators that supported the bill who are up for re-election. They continue to support the legislation and are now cruising to victory over token Democratic opposition.
Whether the immigration litmus test resonates with voters is also an open question.
Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based GOP consultant, said Democrats have a “huge problem.”
“They have gladly served as rubber stamps for an unpopular president and his agenda,” Mr. Merrill said, adding that New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat running against Scott Brown, has voted 99 percent of the time with Mr. Obama.
“This last ditch effort to prove their bipartisanship doesn’t reflect their commitment to common sense solutions, but rather, how vulnerable they feel on an issue swing voters care about — independence — in the final few weeks of this election.”
Democratic strategist Christy Setzer said Democrats — especially those in conservative states — are trying to do a “delicate two-step” of assuring independent voters that they’re willing to work across party lines, and reassuring their base that they’re “‘one of them.’”
“But on the immigration issue in states with a high percentage of Latino voters, that calculus changes — promoting your bipartisanship when the other side considers immigrants as criminals, to me, doesn’t seem like a winning strategy,” she said.