LOS ANGELES — Republicans are seizing on Donald Trump’s strident criticism of California’s so-called “sanctuary state” laws, betting that a growing backlash to the new policies will rally the party’s moribund base.
The laws, which restrict police cooperation with federal immigration authorities, passed last fall. But the issue took on new life when the Trump administration last month filed suit, charging that the state laws obstruct federal immigration enforcement and threaten public safety.
The president escalated the feud last week when he tweeted his “solidarity” with Orange County, after the all-Republican county board of supervisors voted to join the administration’s lawsuit. On Tuesday, Trump singled out Orange County once again in remarks he made before a White House working lunch with leaders of the Baltic states.
“This issue drives intense passion from many people in the district,” said John Thomas, a strategist for Shawn Nelson, a county supervisor who is already running digital ads on the issue in the race to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce. “As this issue grows in prominence, we feel strongly that our voters will show up at the polls to make sure that their public safety comes first.”
The ads — a likely precursor to paid advertising in one of the nation’s most competitive House contests — come as Republicans throughout California sprint to capitalize on grassroots anger against the law.
Nowhere is the fallout more consequential than here in Southern California, home to a collection of close congressional races that are critical to Democratic efforts nationally to retake the House.
For Republicans in populous Orange County, the controversy has come as a shot in the arm. It’s a reminder of the conservative strains still running through a one-time GOP stronghold that has gradually shifted leftward and in 2016 backed a Democrat for president for the first time in 80 years.
Dave Gilliard, a strategist for several Republicans running in contested California races, said that after polling on sanctuary laws in Orange County and Central Valley districts, he advised his clients to campaign on the issue.
“It’s a little different than say, talking about DACA [protections for young undocumented immigrants], for instance … where there’s a strong strain of sympathy for the kids that are here and are kind of left in limbo about where their home should be,” said Gilliard, a strategist for Reps. Jeff Denham and Mimi Walters, as well as two other Republican candidates in Southern California House races. “Sanctuary state, that is strongly opposed by a cross-section of voters.”
He added, “It’s definitely a hot button issue right now … It’s a safe issue for Republicans to campaign on, and I think they are going to talk about it. It’s a good way to distinguish yourself from the rest of the field.”
Thomas said he expects Nelson to make sanctuary laws a “critical piece” of his paid advertising campaign.
“This issue drives intense passion from many people in the district,” he said. “As this issue grows in prominence, we feel strongly that our voters will show up at the polls to make sure that their public safety comes first.”
Before the county supervisors voted to join the Trump administration’s lawsuit, embattled GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher publicly lobbied the board on the issue.
Addressing supervisors at their meeting last week, he said, “By making this a sanctuary city and a sanctuary state, we are doing nothing more than attracting millions of more people to come to this country and to consume the very wealth” that residents need. He said “this flow of illegals” has been a drain on education, health care and housing resources.
The two Republicans running longshot bids for governor have also focused attention on the controversy, with Assemblyman Travis Allen putting even more emphasis on immigration in his campaign.
At a recent POLITICO forum in San Francisco, he repeatedly turned to the issue, saying, “In my first 100 days in office, I’ve already vowed to reverse the illegal sanctuary state. I will call a special election and bring it directly before the people of California. ... They can vote out this illegal, unconstitutional and dangerous law.”
While Republicans detect an opening on immigration in the Southern California suburbs, the party is running starkly against public opinion statewide. According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll this month, 61 percent of California adults favor state and local governments taking their own actions to protect the rights of undocumented immigrants.
“Look, I think that this is a losing issue for Republicans, simply because they’re out of the mainstream when it comes to immigration issues,” said Dave Jacobson, a Democratic strategist working in several Southern California congressional races. “And any Republican who glues themselves to Donald Trump on immigration policy is going to be painted by the Trump brand with independent swing voters that are going to determine the vast majority of these House seats.”
Yet among Republicans, opposition to sanctuary policies remains solid, with 81 percent of Republicans statewide supporting the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, according to the poll.
Liberal advocacy groups and Democrats have recoiled as Republicans place new emphasis on immigration appear to recognize the potential potency of the issue.
Writing in the Voice of OC last week, Carlos Perea, policy and programs director for the advocacy group Resilience Orange County, accused Allen and Nelson of “exhibiting signs of moral turpitude by using these intentionally manipulated situations as opportunities to promote their own political careers and aspirations.”
Sam Jammal, one of a crowded field of Democrats running to replace Royce, scolded Nelson directly at a public forum last week.
“I thought it was despicable what the county Board of Supervisors did this week by demonizing immigrants just so they have a talking point for this campaign,” he said.
Taking the microphone, Nelson told the crowd, “The board of supervisors in the county of Orange took a position on one issue: laws that deal with incarcerated people being released without even the ability to communicate with federal authorities.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said, “and I won’t put up with it.”