MODESTO, Calif./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy of separating immigrant parents and their children at the U.S.-Mexico border has vulnerable Republican congressional candidates scrambling to distance themselves from the issue - but not from the president.
As images of youngsters in cages and an audiotape of wailing children affected by Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy filled worldwide media, the overwhelming majority of Republicans in competitive districts in November’s elections issued statements and took to social media to try to tell voters that they did not condone removing children from their parents.
At the same time, many of those Republicans dared not stray too far from Trump and his agenda, given his popularity with his conservative base.
Mark Harris, a conservative pastor who is trying to win a seat in a district outside Charlotte, North Carolina, said in a statement when his campaign was contacted by Reuters that he has “a growing concern with what is happening” and urged Congress to act.
“Children must not be separated from their parents unless there is a real threat to the safety of the children or if the parents are involved in serious criminal behavior,” said Harris, who otherwise supports Trump’s policies, including building a border wall between Mexico and the United States.
Republican candidates in suburban districts near Denver, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, and in southern California also came out against the policy, leaving a handful in battleground races who had not done so.
“If you are a congressional Republican, this is a nightmare,” said Joe Brettell, a Republican strategist in Houston. “Wait until the ads start running showing that Republican congressman X supported the tearing of families apart and that’s when we’ll find out just how strong Republican resolve is on this issue.”
Centrist Republicans are increasing the pressure already with an ad shared exclusively with Reuters, that will be released online by the centrist group New Way on Wednesday.
It shows a child peering through a chain-link fence as a woman’s voice criticizes the family separation practice. “It’s immoral. It’s cruel. And it has to stop,” the ad says.
Democrats kept a united front, seizing upon the issue to hammer Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress. Every Democrat in the U.S. Senate, even those who face difficult bids for re-election in Trump-friendly states, have signed onto a bill that would overturn the family separation policy.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy in April that all immigrants apprehended while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally should be criminally prosecuted under the country’s criminal entry statute. While migrants are jailed pending trial, their children either remain in border patrol custody or are moved into shelters.
Democrats need to secure 23 more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to gain control of the chamber. If they succeed, much of Trump’s agenda would be stymied.
Opinion polls show the Trump policy to be unpopular with most Americans, although Republicans back it.
“Swing voters, soccer moms, middle-class voters are being turned off by what they are seeing down there,” Democratic strategist Jim Manley said.
Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster involved in Senate races, said the controversy was particularly potent in House districts that contain a significant Hispanic population or have large pockets of highly-educated, moderate Republicans.
Jeff Denham, a Republican congressman from Turlock, in California’s Central Valley, is among those endangered candidates seeking to chart his own path through the issue, even as he is being pressed from all sides by Trump supporters, moderate Republicans, and his Democratic opponent.
Denham’s district is about 40 percent Hispanic. Election analysts say the race is essentially a toss-up between him and his Democratic opponent, Josh Harder, who called the administration’s policy “barbaric.”
Although Denham opposes separating families, he has declined to criticize Trump or the zero-tolerance policy. He is backing a compromise meant to keep families together.
Denham has spearheaded an effort in the House for a vote on an immigration measure favored by moderates that would provide legal relief to “Dreamers” - young immigrants whose deportation was deferred under the Obama administration.
Some conservatives in his district would prefer Denham take a tougher stance. “He ought to stick with what the president wants,” said Jim DeMartini, chairman of the Stanislaus County Republican Party.
Kristin Olsen, a county supervisor from suburban Modesto, represents a more centrist political view. Opinion polls have shown educated, suburban women such as Olsen to be particularly critical of Trump’s policy. She called the policy immoral.
The threat to Republicans in swing districts was enough to push Representative Steve Stivers, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, to break with Trump.
“If the policy is not changed, I will support other means to stop the unnecessary separation of children from their parents,” Stivers, from a suburban district in Ohio, wrote on Facebook.
Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Modesto, California and James Oliphant in Washington; additional reporting by Richard Cowan, John Whitesides and Ginger Gibson in Washington; editing by Damon Darlin and Grant McCool