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Immigration has proved a salient issue for voters in the Midwest and across the country. Paul Sancya/AP

Why Republicans Are Taking the Immigration Fight to the Midwest

GOP politicians hundreds of miles from the southern border in Michigan and Wisconsin are hyperfocused on immigration and border security as they campaign.

Republicans hundreds of miles from the U.S.-Mexico border are attempting to make immigration a top issue in their campaigns.

Politicians in Wisconsin and Michigan have played up their tough stances on border security, hoping to capitalize on concerns from voters about unauthorized immigration and fentanyl coming into the country. Former President Donald Trump has done the same, insisting in Michigan this month that “every town is now a border town.”

Immigration has proved a salient issue for voters in the Midwest and across the country. President Joe Biden’s numbers on the border have been consistently dismal, with most Americans saying they believe he’s “hurt the country” when it comes to immigration, according to a new AP-NORC poll.

Wisconsin Rep. Scott Fitzgerald’s district includes Whitewater, a city that, since early 2022, has been housing between 800 to 1,000 migrants, predominantly from Venezuela and Nicaragua.

It’s the “number one” voter priority in his district, he told NOTUS. “The border issue is something that’s been kind of in everyone’s living room for the last three years, and as a result of that, it’s a huge issue right now,” he said.

“It’s the number one issue before the American people at this point,” Wisconsin Rep. Tom Tiffany echoed. Concerns around the border and South American-sourced fentanyl in particular are what he’s hearing about from his constituency, and “northern Wisconsin [is] about as far away from the southern border as you can get.”

Earlier this month, Trump appeared in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and hosted a roundtable with state Republicans and local law enforcement officers. Later, he delivered fiery remarks in a televised news conference where he accused Democrats’ immigration policies of making “every state a border state” and used increasingly violent language.

“Because Joe Biden has brought the carnage and chaos and killing from all over the world and dumped it straight into our backyards,” Trump said. His dark rhetoric came on the heels of the death of a 25-year-old Michigan woman, who was allegedly killed by a man who was reportedly in the U.S. unlawfully. (Trump spoke extensively about her killing and said he’d spoken with her family, which her family denied.)

That same day, Trump made his first visit to Wisconsin in nearly two years, where he repeated much of his earlier comments on border security within the first 15 minutes of his speech.

Gary Stark, a Michigan Democratic Party district chair, told NOTUS that Trump’s campaigning on immigration in Michigan was “tawdry political theater” that was “shamelessly exploiting [a] tragedy.” Stark is confident that voters would see it as such.

“I don’t think there’s any single visit or single incident that would [sway voters],” he said. “It’s fairly obvious what he’s up to.”

Next door, Republican voter outreach efforts in Michigan haven’t begun in earnest as the state party rebuilds. However, Republicans are still messaging to constituents about immigration and border policy.

“There is no such thing as the distance from the border any longer,” Hima Kolanagireddy, the Republican National Convention Committeewoman-elect for Michigan, told NOTUS.

“The discussion that is happening in our neighborhood is how to protect our homes from these people,” she added.

Overall, violent crime is down, but high-profile cases involving suspects who are immigrants in the U.S. unlawfully, like the killing of Michigan’s Ruby Garcia or Georgia’s Laken Riley, are talked about frequently by Republicans on the trail.

Whether Democrats’ increasingly rightward shift on the border helps them in the Midwest remains to be seen. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer instituted a program that provides rent subsidies to documented, legal migrants, much to the ire of Republicans.

On Capitol Hill, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee warned members that immigration is a crucial issue in battleground districts. Punchbowl News reported that a DCCC poll found abortion and immigration were “deal-breakers” for voters — signaling that candidates needed to tackle both head-on.

Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan voted to move forward with a bipartisan border deal that included sizable Democratic concessions (the bill failed a procedural vote after Trump told Republicans to ditch it).

Sen. James Lankford, the Oklahoma Republican who led Senate negotiations, told NOTUS that Republicans were still right to campaign on immigration, even if he was disappointed his legislation went nowhere.

“The challenge that we have is that the Biden administration has significant authorities they’re choosing not to use,” he said.

Strategists in Wisconsin think the immigration focus will work well for Republicans in the state.

“I think it’ll move independents and soft Democrats [in Wisconsin] back our way because they don’t like not having a policy,” Republican strategist Bill McCoshen said. “They’re not sure who’s paying for all these people to come and house them, feed them and educate and provide health care for that. It’s creating more questions than answers, and ultimately, that does not work for incumbents.”

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Although Midwestern Republicans have taken up immigration as the campaign issue, Democrats in Michigan and Wisconsin believe they have a potent issue of their own: abortion.

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, Republicans have only won two statewide races in Wisconsin: Sen. Ron Johnson and state Treasurer John Leiber in 2022. And Michigan Democrats swept statewide and enshrined abortion rights into their constitution. Despite how motivating abortion has been for voters, could immigration be what gets the GOP to see some statewide success this fall?

“It certainly has the potential to do that,” said Tiffany.

“Absolutely,” said Fitzgerald. “All I gotta do is go to any county Lincoln Day dinner or any caucus or even when you do office hours in the district. The people that show up, that’s the first thing on their mind.”

Tinashe Chingarande and Nuha Dolby are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.