There may be no other issue on which the red-blue divide runs as deep as immigration right now, and you have to look no further than the spat between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Mr. Abbott is running for reelection in November on a get-tough immigration platform, battling the Biden border surge with state police, his own border wall and a busing campaign that is sending migrants to Democratic-led cities of Washington, New York and Chicago.
Ms. Lightfoot, who faces voters in February, has responded by blasting the Republican governor as un-Christian and “racist” but said she would happily take the new arrivals he was sending her.
She has even used the fight to raise money for her campaign.
“This is a critical moment for our city,” she said in an email to supporters asking for campaign donations. “I don’t appreciate Gov. Abbott’s discriminatory practices, but I’m not going to turn migrants away when we have the resources to welcome them with open arms.”
Oddly enough, both the governor and the mayor probably have winning positions.
In red Texas, border security is a top-of-mind issue for voters and has been for years, said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based Republican strategist. The Republican governor’s stance plays well not just with Republicans, but also with independents and even border-area Hispanic voters who might otherwise tack toward the Democrats.
“You’re with 60% of voters,” Mr. Steinhauser said. “If you spend time anywhere in Texas, you will find that the views on this are a little more in line with the security side.”
Dick W. Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, said as a former Texan he wasn’t quite sure the state tilts that far on immigration anymore.
But he said Ms. Lightfoot is feeling the pulse of voters in her city, which has a long history as a magnet for migrants, and her embrace of Mr. Abbott’s bused migrants is likely to help her among the city’s Hispanic voters.
“Generally, I think the mayor’s position has been popular,” Mr. Simpson said.
Where immigration falls for the rest of the country, however, remains murky.
GOP strategists say the howls of protest from Democrats whose towns are targeted by the busing campaign can only help, underscoring just how bad things have become under President Biden.
Democrats counter that the busing campaign is cruel and voters will punish the GOP for using migrants as a stunt.
“What they’re doing is simply wrong, it’s un-American, it’s reckless,” Mr. Biden told a gathering of Hispanic Democrats on Thursday.
He said the immigration debate should be over how much leniency to show, and he urged Congress to take up a bill offering citizenship rights to millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally.
“It’s time to get it done. That’s why we have to win this off-year election,” the president said.
Republicans entered 2022 figuring immigration would be a critical weapon they could use in their bid to retake Congress from Democrats in the midterm elections. Strategists had urged them to run hard on the issue, highlighting the chaos that Mr. Biden has spawned with his more lenient approach to illegal border crossers.
But as the congressional campaigns hit the final stretch before November’s elections, it’s not clear how much power the issue retains.
GOP leaders, while still carping about the border chaos, no longer place it among the top issues for voters, instead pointing to inflation, government spending and tax policy.
That the border motivates Republican voters is not in doubt. Whether it matters beyond the GOP is very much an open question.
America’s Voice, a leading immigrant-rights group, said polling shows other issues, such as abortion, have overtaken immigration in voters’ ballot calculus.
Beyond that, the group contends, the GOP has overplayed its hand.
“While immigration has declined in salience for most general election voters, it remains a powerful point of distinction between the parties. And while the most animated voters on immigration are the MAGA base voters, the vast majority of the general electorate rejects that extremism,” the group concluded.
America’s Voice pointed to one late-August poll by progressive-leaning firms Hart Research and BSP Research that found Republicans do have the advantage on border issues, and on immigration overall. Voters in states and congressional districts deemed to be “battlegrounds” for control of Congress give the GOP a 48-40 advantage on immigration, the pollsters said.
But the pollsters said those numbers flip when voters are given a specific choice between a Democrat who backs leniency toward immigrants already in the U.S. illegally, versus a Republican who opposes citizenship for the immigrants.
Mr. Steinhauser said voters seem to be of two minds on immigration: They want borders controlled, but they are willing to be generous to those who broke the law to get in.
“Every bit of data that I’ve seen tells me that there is actually some middle ground on immigration and border security,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of people nationwide who would like to see humane border security that prevents massive migration, that lets us understand who is coming and why, that doesn’t allow the cartels to run roughshod over our country, and treats people humanely and decently.”
Democratic candidates in reelection battles have tacked to the right on border issues.
In Arizona, which like Texas is a border state, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly has touted his work on getting the Biden administration to complete sections of the Trump border wall near Yuma. Mr. Biden has had to go back on his promise of “not another foot” of construction.
And though New Hampshire is far from the southern border, Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan visited Arizona in the spring to record a video of her standing in front of the wall to urge more construction.
That move drew fierce condemnation from Hispanic Democratic activists in her state.
Elsewhere, though, Republicans are the ones embracing what have usually been considered Democratic positions on interior enforcement.
In Wake County, North Carolina, the GOP nominee for sheriff has announced he will not restore cooperation agreements between the county and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Donnie Harrison also said he won’t honor any deportation “detainer” requests from ICE, creating an effective sanctuary jurisdiction.
Mr. Harrison’s position is all the more surprising because it’s a reversal from four years ago, when he was sheriff and had a cooperative agreement with ICE. He lost his reelection bid in 2018 to a Democrat who vowed to end the cooperation agreement.
Mr. Harrison’s reversal comes even as Wake County is reeling from the death of a sheriff’s deputy last month. Multiple migrants have been charged in the slaying.