Prominent Democratic strategists are worried that a major pre-election executive action by President Barack Obama on deportations could cost them the Senate majority.
A growing number of Democratic operatives believe it would be politically wise to punt the announcement until after the election, which the White House is reportedly considering amid pressure from members facing tough races in red states.
“Politically, waiting until after the election makes sense, and it shows the White House understands how important keeping the Senate is,” a Democratic Senate aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, told TPM. “In the states that are the most competitive, the downsides to executive action outweigh the potential upsides in terms of motivating the Democratic and GOP bases.”
Control of the Senate will likely hinge on the outcome of a handful of competitive races in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina. Hispanic voters aren’t a major factor there. But white, conservative-leaning voters are, and immigration anxieties run high among them. An executive move to halt deportations carries the risk of encouraging those voters to go to the polls so they can punish the President’s party.
“It’s like Lincoln and the 13th Amendment — you don’t push for it before the 1864 election, you push for it after,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist, referring to the politics of the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.
“I think the President should do this. I think it’s the right thing to do on the merits. But in a realistic world you take political impacts into consideration,” he said. “The outcome of the midterms is going to have a big impact on policy for a number of years.”
Shrum said it was a “close question” whether Obama should act before or after the election, arguing that there were some upsides to announcing his moves before Nov. 4. “If he acted, it would boost Hispanic and minority turnout, and that can’t be anything but a good thing for the Democrats,” Shrum said, mentioning Colorado as a state where it could help mobilize the Hispanic population. “On the other hand there could be a backlash for red state Democrats. … I don’t think Hispanics are going to be a major factor in Arkansas or Kentucky.”
It is the uncertainty of voters’ response that most worries Democratic operatives whose mission it is to maintain control of the Senate.
“It’s hard to say exactly how action before the election would impact Senate races. Maybe it would help Democratic turnout or maybe it would hurt, and because it’s unknown the administration should wait,” said a Democratic strategist, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.
Democrats in red states have spoken out against the idea of Obama bypassing Congress to make changes to the immigration system — the list includes Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky.
“I, too, am frustrated with the partisanship in Washington,” Pryor said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “But that doesn’t give the president carte blanche authority to sidestep Congress when he doesn’t get his way.”
Shrum mused that if Obama acts before the election, endangered Democratic candidates could reduce the political pain by maintaining their distance from him. “Keep in mind that Pryor, Hagan and Grimes are running separate from the president anyway, so they could always say they disagree with him,” he said.
Some progressive operatives working to help liberal Democratic incumbents and candidates this cycle favor a quick and bold action, saying it would mobilize the base.
Democracy For America, a progressive activist group founded by Howard Dean, believes that “decisive executive action from President Obama to halt deportations is not only the right thing to do, it would also be a huge boost of inspiration for the grassroots, progressive base of Democratic Party at precisely the right moment,” spokesman Neil Sroka said in an email.
The White House has declined to confirm or deny reports that it is weighing a delay in the announcement. There has been a heated internal debate about the timing of the rollout, according to the New York Times.
“Have no doubt, in the absence of congressional action, I’m going to do what I can to make sure the system works better,” Obama told reporters on Thursday, staying ambiguous on timing.
It is not clear what actions the administration will take. According to reports, it is considering expanding Obama’s “deferred action” program (which temporarily shields certain young people from deportation) to a larger population of low-priority migrants who haven’t committed serious crimes. It is also mulling recommendations to overhaul the legal immigration system.
Democratic strategists agree that there are long-term political benefits to a bold executive move on immigration, particularly with regard to the 2016 presidential election, when Hispanic voters are expected to once again play a major role. But for the near term, a divide has emerged within the Democratic party that Obama will have to sort out, with lots riding on his decision.