LEESBURG, Va. — With the Senate asylum and border deal firmly in the grave, some House Democrats say they are worried border security could overshadow reproductive rights as the key campaign issue in the 2024 elections.
Their fears are especially focused on suburban swing districts in blue states where abortion rights are already protected and a fight over the border may hurt Democrats in seats that could determine which party controls the majority next year.
“I’m concerned that in blue states where reproductive rights are already protected, does the border become more salient than the threat to reproductive rights near metropolitan areas?” one moderate lawmaker who represents a suburban district said here at House Democrats’ annual retreat.
President Joe Biden and down-ballot Democrats can “perform well” on issues like reproductive rights, gun violence and the economy “when there is less chaos in the world,” the Democratic lawmaker said, noting that “public safety has improved in a lot of places and you see crime down.” But with wars worsening in the Middle East and Europe and recent record migrant crossings at the southern border, issues like border security “start to compete for salience, and that’s the concern.”
At the House Democrats’ yearly issues conference at the Lansdowne Resort near the Potomac River in northern Virginia, there were closed-door panels with experts on important issues such as reproductive rights, housing, child and elder care, lowering costs, unions, climate, engaging young voters, artificial intelligence, Ukraine and China. But there was no formal panel during the three-day gathering on immigration or border security — even as the issue reached a fevered pitch on Capitol Hill in recent weeks.
“It’s a glaring omission,” said a senior House Democrat, one who represents a border state.
“After Republicans killed the bipartisan border deal, they clearly want the issue — not a solution,” the lawmaker said. “But that shouldn’t mean the issue is dead. It is still important to our voters and still an issue we need to solve.”
On Wednesday night, NBC News reported that the Biden administration is considering taking executive action to deter large numbers of migrants illegally crossing the southern border, according to U.S. officials. It’s something that House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and other Republicans have been urging Biden to do and could be seen as an acknowledgment that border security remains a big political vulnerability for Biden and his party in 2024.
Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has been busing and transporting tens of thousands of migrants to major U.S. cities like New York, Chicago, Denver and Washington, D.C., straining local resources and infuriating Democratic mayors, as well as alarming voters in suburban swing districts in those regions.
Biden will address House Democrats at the retreat on Thursday afternoon, where his efforts on border security and immigration will almost certainly come up.
Other lawmakers said just because there was no organized panel on border security didn’t mean the issue was not being discussed throughout the sprawling, heavily secured resort. The issue came up during a question-and-answer session with Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday, Democrats said, and there have been countless meetings on immigration in the Capitol.
“It’s front and center. And so just because you don’t have a panel, it doesn’t mean these conversations are not happening. And at the caucus level in the Congress at the Capitol, we always have immigration groups come in,” Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., told reporters at a news conference Thursday. “So the fact that there’s no panel, I don’t think is a reflection of the fact that we’re not continuing to fight on this or that it’s not a priority. Not at all.”
In a sit-down interview at the party’s retreat, House Democrats’ campaign chair this cycle, Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington, said that both reproductive rights and the border are “hugely important” issues in key districts across the country.
But she said GOP leaders’ decision to ditch the bipartisan Senate border deal this week, at Donald Trump’s urging, demonstrates that Republicans themselves are not serious about solving the border crisis.
“Republicans were asking for this; they said they wanted to come to the table. And so folks did a lot of work to come to the table to do that, to come to an agreement, and then they were like, ‘Oh, just kidding. We don’t want an agreement because Donald Trump told us we don’t want to pass anything,’” DelBene told NBC News.
“They were very clear about the politics, and they don’t want to do anything that’s helpful because they want to be able to complain about it. And that’s terrible,” she continued. “They aren’t serious about governing. Everything is about trying to create a message and talk about how things are broken, but they’re not interested at all in being part of a solution.”
Abortion proved to be a powerful motivating factor for Democrats in the 2022 midterms, which came months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. While the economic climate and high inflation would have normally favored a Republican wave, Democrats all across the country ran on abortion and it was widely seen as helping minimize Republican gains during the midterms.
The Senate remained in Democratic hands and the House flipped, but with Republicans gaining a very narrow majority. NBC News exit polling showed that nationwide, 27% of voters said it was the most important issue they considered when casting their vote, second only to inflation (32%).
An early test of the interplay of the two issues will come next week in a special election to fill the seat that was held by former Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., until he was expelled from Congress in December. An increase in migrant arrivals in New York City and the surrounding suburbs — including Long Island, where New York’s Third District is located — has made it a far more potent issue with voters than it has been in recent elections.
Republicans have sought to paint the Democratic nominee for Santos’s seat, former Rep. Tom Suozzi, as too permissive on the issue of immigration in part by highlighting his claim during the 2022 New York gubernatorial race that he “kicked [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] out of Nassau County” when he was the executive there.
Suozzi has gone on the offense, airing multiple ads promising to work across the aisle to secure the border and highlighting his past work on an immigration bill with former Republican Rep. Peter King.
Meanwhile, Democrats have highlighted clips of Republican candidate Mazi Pilip talking about her pro-life views, prompting Pilip to declare in her own ad that protecting women’s rights is a top priority and saying, “In Congress, I will oppose a federal abortion ban.”
Minority Whip Katherine Clark, the No. 2 House Democratic leader, argued that her party has no plans to back off reproductive rights as a campaign issue and insisted it will still resonate with voters.
“We’re going to tell the stories of women who have lost limbs from sepsis being denied care, women having to travel six, eight hours in the ambulance to another state to get the care they needed. People may have nuanced views on abortion, but they understand that this is fundamental to freedom. And we cannot have two systems of health care in this country and move forward,” Clark, D-Mass., said Thursday, flanked by other Democratic women leaders.
“And if the GOP wants to talk about the border,” she said, “they have revealed their hand.”