The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 36

This week:

  • Trump’s unmade case for the border wall
  • Strange trails in Alabama runoff
  • Flake, Heller are the weakest Republican links in 2018

Immigration: Although he barely mentioned it in his Phoenix speech, and really failed to exploit its significance, President Trump made a very important visit to Yuma last week. The Yuma sector of the United States-Mexico border is the site of an unsung success story of immigration enforcement.

After President George W. Bush signed a bill authorizing a border fence, the government actually built a 57-mile fence along the border opposite the city of Yuma in 2007. This was long, long before the idea of Trump running for office was on anyone’s lips, and long before it would have been taken seriously.  

The results of this construction are clear to anyone who cares to look them up. There were about 119,000 apprehensions of illegal immigrants in the Yuma Sector in fiscal year 2006, before that fence was built. In the six months between Trump’s inauguration and July 31 of this year, there have been roughly 3,000 apprehensions in the same sector.

That is not a misprint — it is a reduction of about 95 percent per month. In addition to the stated quantitative change, it also represents a qualitative change. In Yuma, the flow of illegal immigration and smuggling ten years ago was probably far beyond the Border Patrol’s ability to keep up. Several surely got through for each apprehension. The current flow, in contrast, is something that law enforcement can reasonably keep up with.

President Trump spent a lot of time in Phoenix attacking the press for its coverage of the Charlottesville marches a week earlier, and his reaction to them. He might have changed more minds if he’d discussed these numbers, which his White House put out a day in advance.

People can and do make the case against the border wall that Trump has endlessly talked about building. And along some segments of the border there is a case to be made. But there are also places where the case for a border wall is overwhelming. The deserts of Arizona seem to be one of them.

Whatever their views on immigration in general — much more of it or less of it — the idea that as much of it as possible should be legal, and that the government should know who is coming in, is widely accepted by voters. And this is part of the argument that some politicians make for an immigration amnesty — the idea of bringing everyone out of the shadows depends upon this same principle.

But a wall might also move us a lot further toward the goal of 100 percent lawful immigration than people currently realize, as Yuma proves, and as the San Diego sector proved (with an even more dramatic reduction in crossings) decades earlier. Even if a wall alone is a simplistic solution, it will surely be part of any realistic solution going forward.

Even if Trump never succeeds in building his promised wall from sea to shining sea, a few more strategically placed barriers could really discourage enough crossings to make the border manageable for the first time in a very, very long time. If it reduces the chaos amid which smugglers operate, and the number of migrant deaths in the desert, it would be worth it. Even if Trump didn’t take the opportunity to make the relevant argument, his White House did so, and it’s a pretty hard argument to refute.

Americans won’t be any closer to agreeing on what immigration reform should look like because of anything Trump says. Yet the opportunity during his administration to reduce border mayhem offers some grounds for optimism.

Until recently, it was just assumed that a lawless border where the Border Patrol is constantly and hopelessly overrun was a given — that nothing could really be done to restore order. But this calendar year to date, or at least the part of it during which Trump has been president, has proven otherwise. Apprehensions along the Southern Border between February 1 and July 31 of 2016 were about 199,000. For the same period in 2017, they were 91,000, or less than half, implying far fewer successful crossings. And that’s with no new walls having even been built yet — just based on a new president’s stated intention to enforce the law. Imagine if more barriers were actually built, as they were around Yuma.

Senate 2017

Alabama: The Senate GOP primary runoff between Judge Roy Moore and Sen. Luther Strange is proceeding as expected, with Moore out ahead. There are now three polls out that show the incumbent trailing. What’s more, two of them show Moore above 50 percent. The poll most favorable to Moore (showing him behind by only four points) was commissioned by a SuperPAC associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which has backed Strange with millions in expenditures already. 

As the result in the primary suggested, Strange’s ethics problem has created a lot of doubt in voters’ minds, and most of the voters who backed Rep. Mo Brooks in the first round of the GOP primary are not inclined to support him in the second. As a result, the nomination is Moore’s to lose.

Senate 2018

Arizona: It’s quite exceptional for a Republican president to come to a state with two Republican senators and take the occasion to bash both of them. But Trump’s decision to do just that last week in Phoenix comes as little surprise, at a moment when his relationship with the congressional GOP in general is very tense.

Speaking of the near-miss on passage of Obamacare repeal in the U.S. Senate, Trump said, “We were one vote away. Think of it —seven years. one vote away from repeal. One vote. Speak to your senator. Please. speak to your senator.” And in fact, for the next several minutes, Trump kept coming back to the idea of “ONE VOTE!” This was an obvious reference to Sen. John McCain, whose last-minute decision to vote “no” torpedoed Obamacare repeal.

And Trump also said this: “Nobody wants me to talk about your other senator who is weak on borders, weak on crime. Nobody wants me to talk about him. Nobody knows who the hell he is. And now, see, I haven’t mentioned any names, so now everybody’s happy.”

This was, of course, an obvious reference to Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, whom Trump had already been attacking overtly earlier this month.

McCain, just re-elected and in ill health, has nothing to lose from Trump’s wrath, as it is highly unlikely he’ll seek another term in 2022. Flake, on the other hand, faces re-election in 2018, and trouble from Trump is the last thing he needs.

Flake, however, has been outspoken in his criticism of Trump and the direction in which he has taken the party. And all polls suggest he is in serious trouble, surely the most vulnerable of all GOP incumbents in 2018.

Flake trails in at least one very early general election poll against Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. But more important than the fact that he is losing is the fact that he registers only in the low 30s, which is fatal for an incumbent. But his more immediate problem is surviving the Republican primary, which takes place a year from this week.

Trump once signaled support on Twitter for former state Sen. Kelli Ward’s challenge to Flake. And she has used Trump’s remarks in Phoenix for everything she can. But Trump also used his visit to encourage other Republicans to run against Flake, including state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and state GOP chairman Robert Graham, apparently with Rep. Trent Franks, R approving of this move. This may just be Trump’s way of making sure Flake faces the strongest possible primary challenge, evincing a lack of faith that Ward is necessarily the person best suited to do it.

Meanwhile, McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund is circling the wagons around Flake and savaging Ward early on with an attack that is pretty obviously unfair.

It’s hard to argue that Flake, with his popularity so low at the moment,  would be a stronger general election candidate than any of the challengers. He doesn’t have that argument going for him, as incumbents usually do amidst similar insurgent challenges. Mitch McConnell came back from similarly bad numbers, but that only proves it isn’t impossible — not that it’s likely.

How well would a Trump-backed Senate challenger do? It really remains to be seen. Ward has gone all the way, for example, using “Make Arizona Great Again” as her campaign slogan. But although Trump himself won Arizona’s primary handily last year, he underperformed badly in the general election, carrying the state by only 3.5 points, as opposed to Mitt Romney’s nine-point victory in 2012. And even as Trump won, Republicans lost a bit of ground down-ballot in both houses of the state legislature.

Democrats have been shut out in Arizona politics in ever since 2006, the last time former Gov. Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Terry Goddard won re-election. Most of the time, even races that appeared to have the potential to be competitive (such as the 2014 governor’s race) ended with lopsided Republican victories. But that doesn’t mean the state’s Democrats will be dead forever, and this race will give them their best opportunity in years to prove they aren’t.

Nevada: Sen. Dean Heller, R, who won election to his current Senate term in 2012, is the other weak link in Republicans’ Senate chain in 2018. Although he is probably not as weak as Flake, his vote against Obamacare repeal (Flake voted for it) endangers him with both Trump-Republicans and conservatives, and it has created a market for a primary challenge.

Danny Tarkanian, son of the late UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, has lost in every general election he’s ever been in since his first attempt in 2004. That includes a statewide race and races for two separate congressional districts under the current map (in 2012 and 2016). But a new poll by the Republican firm JMC Analytics still shows him leading Heller very early on ahead of next year’s primary, 39 to 31 percent.

Again, as with Flake, the fact that Heller trails another candidate is less important than the fact that his own level of support is so incredibly low. For an incumbent to post a number like 31 percent in his own primary is a terrible sign. And the beef against Heller — he is the only Republican senator up for re-election next year who voted “no” on the Obamacare repeal bill — is substantive enough that the attack ads will write themselves.