DACA debate could send a political shockwave through 2018 and beyond

Story highlights

  • Republican leadership is navigating a politically perilous debate
  • Democrats are trying to make the decision as painful as possible for the GOP

Washington (CNN)As Congress grapples with a six-month window to save a program that protects young undocumented immigrants, another date is looming in the back of politicians' minds: November 6, 2018.

Foremost in the debate over President Donald Trump's decision to end DACA, the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, is the fate of the roughly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants currently enrolled in the program, who could lose their ability to work and study in what for many is the only home they've ever known without fear of deportation if Congress doesn't act by March 5.
At the same time, the raw politics of the issue are front and center, especially the potentially disastrous consequences for Republicans in swing districts if the DACA program were to end.
    While plenty of Republicans serve in ruby red districts where voters are strongly against what they perceive as an "amnesty" program for the population, who were brought to the US as children, there's also a potentially majority-shifting group of Republicans up for re-election in 2018 in areas with high populations of Latino voters and places where the program remains popular.
    And Democrats are certain to try to make the debate over DACA as painful as possible for those Republicans.
    "Trump's decision to end DACA is not only deeply un-American and out of step with our values, but it's also a catastrophic decision for Republicans in 2018 and beyond," said Jessica Mackler, president of American Bridge, a Democratic-aligned super PAC.
    "This is really a catastrophic decision for Republicans particularly in states like Nevada, Arizona and Florida," Mackler added. "Regardless of what happens, over the next 14 months, voters are going to be reminded about which party wanted to deport 800,000 young people, and for Republicans like (Sens.) Dean Heller and Jeff Flake, they're going to sink under the weight of this decision."

    Vulnerable Republicans

    Indeed, Heller, a senator from Nevada, and Flake, a senator from Arizona, are Republicans' two most vulnerable members up for re-election in 2018, and Republicans only have a 52-48 seat majority. Democrats, though, have 10 incumbents running for re-election in states Trump won in 2016.
    In the House, 23 incumbent Republicans represent districts that were won in 2016 by Democrat Hillary Clinton, who campaigned on a much more pro-immigration policy than Trump. If all were to flip, barring other changes, it would be enough to render the House virtually even between the parties.
    Republicans note that there is still time to save DACA, address immigration in Congress and pass other legislation that would bolster their case for being re-elected -- but also acknowledge the concern caused by the President's decision.
    "They potential is there to be problematic," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist, CNN contributor and Romney campaign alum. "It does become a very contentious issue and this is something where Democrats think they can expose a rift between the Republican Party and a growing swath of voters it needs to win."
    Madden cited tax reform and economic policy changes as moves that could bolster the Republican position going into the election, as well as doing something to protect DACA. But he noted the risk at hand.
    "If DACA goes away, in that scenario it becomes a motivating force for the Democratic base, and you have a lot of energy going for Democratic recruitment, fundraising and voter base enthusiasm," Madden said. "They've already had a lot of that and haven't done much with it in special elections, so we'll see, but that is something we have to be wary of."
    One campaign official for a Republican lawmaker in a swing district said the concern isn't just 2018, but that the ramifications of the debate -- even if a fix for DACA is passed -- will cause long-term damage for Republicans.
    "I think ultimately, members are motivated to fix the problem because of the humanitarian concern," the official said on condition of anonymity to speak candidly. "But while we deliberate the way we fix the problem, it just continues to hurt our longer-term image and outreach to the Latino community."
    For Republican leadership, charting a path forward on DACA is politically perilous on both sides. While leaders recognize that to preserve their majority, swing district members will be critical, pushing through a deal perceived as weak on illegal immigration could risk primary challenges from the right and retribution from the party's right flank.
    Lawmakers in many of the swing districts have long advocated for a DACA fix, with 20 Republicans from states like Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, New York, California and Arizona signing on to co-sponsor a bill from Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo that would make protections like DACA's permanent -- two of whom joined the day Trump announced the program would end. Flake has also been a strong advocate for immigration reform and preserving DACA-like protections.

    Democrats seizing the moment

    Democrats are already seizing on immigration as a key wedge issue.
    Virtually all 2020 presidential hopefuls quickly put out statements calling for an immediate fix for DACA, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose state is home to more DACA recipients than any other, speaking alongside Democratic leadership at a news conference on the Hill on Wednesday and Elizabeth Warren taking on the Senate floor on the topic.
    Members have seized on the moment to call Trump "cruel," "shameful" and "despicable" in public statements -- eager to tie their Republican colleagues and opponents to his action. It's a turn from 2010, when five Senate Democrats voted against and killed the Dream Act that Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin is still trying to pass.
    Only one of those senators is still in office, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who is up for re-election next year. Tester called for a solution for DACA recipients in a statement this week.