When Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis sent 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, the affluent Massachusetts island favoured by progressives as a holiday destination, it was an attempt to draw attention to an issue in which the Democratic party polls badly with voters.
DeSantis’s move this week came days after Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, said he had sent two buses of migrants to vice-president Kamala Harris’s home in Washington, DC.
Pollsters said the headline-generating stunts would fire up the Republican base but added that they suggested a sense of desperation in a party that is hunting for ways to reignite a stuttering campaign ahead of the midterm elections.
With soaring inflation eating into Americans’ incomes and president Joe Biden’s approval ratings in negative territory, the elections in November should be the Republican party’s to lose — especially given that the governing party tends to lose control of Congress at the midterms.
At the start of the summer, Republicans looked set to take control of both houses. But after the Supreme Court overturned national abortion protections and the former president Donald Trump was revealed to be under investigation for allegedly mishandling classified information, momentum has shifted.
Now the Democrats are favoured to win the Senate, while what was expected to be a “red wave” victory in the House is set to be a more closely fought contest, even if Republicans end up with a majority.
“Both sides are playing a game of base politics, which makes sense in a midterm election when not as many independents turn out to vote,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Immigration energises the Republicans like no other issue,” he added. “But they need it — all the polls are telling us that the energy right now is with the Democrats.”
This week offered a chance for the Republicans to win the news cycle after an unexpected increase in inflation caught the White House by surprise. On Tuesday morning, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics published figures showing that consumer prices had risen in August, sparking a stock market sell-off and a fresh round of headlines about soaring inflation.
Biden and his advisers had hoped that the monthly figure would show a small decline in consumer prices. They even scheduled a White House “celebration” of his Inflation Reduction Act, a package of health and climate measures with a somewhat disingenuous title given that it will do little to tackle the current bout of price pressures.
Senior party officials were worried that the event, in which thousands of supporters crammed on to the South Lawn waving American flags, would show the administration to be out of touch.
“The timing of the party was less than ideal — I’m not sure why the White House chose that as a day to do it,” said one who attended.
But by Tuesday evening, inflation had been knocked off the top of the news agenda by Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who refocused voters’ attention on abortion after publishing proposals to ban the procedure across the country after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Not only did Graham’s announcement distract from the inflation figures, it also undermined the Republicans’ central argument on abortion, which is that it is a matter for individual states. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, refused to back his colleague, saying he would “leave it up to our candidates . . . to determine for them what their response is”.
“Graham’s announcement struck me as a desperate bid for relevancy,” said Juleanna Glover, a former Republican official turned lobbyist. “I don’t think there was any greater good for the party from this, or for women.”
The tensions triggered by Graham’s proposals highlighted a broader split in the party, with the likes of McConnell wanting to focus on the economy while other Republicans — many of them playing to the Make America Great Again wing of the party — zero in on social issues.
“The problem for Republicans is that their party is genuinely divided, and they are not going to be able to change that before the election,” said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist.
DeSantis’s move to push migration back to the front of the political agenda helped reunite the party, at least temporarily, on Friday. And it might still draw voters’ attention to an area where Democrats perform badly. A poll from Siena College and The New York Times on Friday showed that 51 per cent of registered voters agreed with the Republicans on illegal immigration versus 37 per cent who concurred with the Democrats.
But pollsters warn the Republicans will need to do more to regain the momentum less than two months before the election. The Siena poll showed the two parties roughly tied in terms of which one voters lean towards, with a nine-point improvement in Biden’s approval rating.
The underlying economic and political conditions should still favour the Republicans, say many experts. But the party needs to work out how to take advantage of them.
“This is a unique time in American politics,” said Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute. “You have the majority of voters — including half of Democrats — saying the country is on the wrong track. But on the other hand you have a Republican party whose de facto leader is thought by the majority of people to have committed a serious crime.”
Sabato said: “The Republicans should be in a winning position right now, but they keep stumbling over themselves.”