SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Donald Trump fueled his 2016 campaign with fiery immigration rhetoric, visions of hordes flowing across the border to assault Americans and steal their jobs. Now, in the final weeks before midterm elections, he’s back at it as he looks to stave off Democratic gains in Congress.
It’s an approach that offers both risks and rewards. He could energize Democratic foes as well as the Republicans he wants to rouse to the polls.
But for the president, the potential gains clearly win out. In campaign stops and on Twitter in recent days, he has seized on a huge caravan of Central American migrants trying to reach the United States through Mexico as fresh evidence that his tough immigration prescriptions are needed.
He tweeted that the caravan was an “assault on our country at our Southern Border.” Then, Thursday night in Montana, he told cheering supporters, “This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order and common sense. ... Remember it’s gonna be an election of the caravan.”
His assertions got a visual boost Friday when some members of the caravan broke through a Guatemalan border barrier with Mexico. A few then got through to Mexican territory, but most were repelled by police with riot shields and pepper spray.
Trump signaled Friday he thought the strategy was working, telling reporters in Scottsdale, Arizona, that immigration was “a great issue for the Republicans.”
On an aggressive campaign blitz, has sought to cast the midterms as a referendum on his presidency, believing that he must insert himself into the national conversation in order to bring Republicans out to vote. Perhaps no issue was more identified with his last campaign than immigration, particularly his much-vaunted — and still-unfulfilled — promise to quickly build a U.S.-Mexico border wall. To Trump, his pledges are still rallying cries.
“I think it’s a big contrast point. All the Democrats are refusing to build the wall. It’s a good contrast,” said former Trump campaign aide Barry Bennett, who said the caravan was “perfectly timed” for Trump’s midterm pitch.
But some warn that as Trump seeks to pump up his base, he could energize opposition. Matt Barreto, co-founder of the research firm Latino Decision, said an elevated immigration message could hurt Trump, too.
“I think you run the risk of angering minority voters across the board, Latino, black and Asian-Americans and also alienating and distancing from whites, including conservatives and moderates, now that they see what’s happening with the family separations,” said Barreto, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Thursday night, the migrant caravan of at least 3,000, many waving Honduran flags and chanting slogans, arrived at the Guatemalan border with Mexico. On Friday, they broke down Guatemalan gates and streamed toward a bridge to Mexico. Most were repelled by Mexican police, but about 50 got through.
Mexico’s dispatching of additional police to its southern border seemed to please Trump. On Thursday night, he retweeted a BuzzFeed journalist’s tweet of a video clip showing the police deployment, adding his own comment: “Thank you Mexico, we look forward to working with you!”