A new Republican TV ad ties Dan Feehan, the Democrat running in southern Minnesota's First Congressional District, to the caravan of Central American immigrants headed to the southern U.S. border.
Over images of marchers, an announcer says the caravan "is full of gang members and criminals" and adds that Feehan would vote for "open borders and amnesty, putting Minnesota families at risk."
An earlier ad linked Feehan to Colin Kaepernick's NFL protests and ended with a shot of a sinister-looking, dark-skinned man. Feehan, that voice-over said, would give "taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal immigrants."
The Congressional Leadership Fund ads highlight the issue's prominence in the final days of U.S. House campaigns. It has flared in other races here as President Donald Trump vows to stop the caravan.
It's a potentially potent theme in the contest between Feehan and Republican Jim Hagedorn because an influx of newcomers has reshaped cities in the First District. The Congressional Leadership Fund is a GOP super PAC tied to House Speaker Paul Ryan.
"Republicans think this issue will resonate here because this is a relatively non-diverse, heavily white district," said Fred Slocum, who teachers a course on racial and ethnic politics at Minnesota State University Mankato. "But it's not clear to me that this is really a front-burner issue" outside the GOP base.
A Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll taken Oct. 15-17 found that most voters opposed building a wall on the border if the U.S. has to pay for it. Half said immigrants living here illegally should be allowed to become citizens if they meet some requirements.
Feehan backs a path to citizenship for immigrants who pay taxes and don't have criminal records. He would implement policies so that local and state law enforcement would not have to supplement federal immigration enforcement.
Hagedorn opposes making Minnesota a sanctuary that doesn't prosecute immigrants for being here illegally. He backs a plan allowing people to work in the U.S. and build credits toward citizenship.
Worthington's nonpartisan mayor, Mike Kuhle, said his city has 46 businesses owned by minorities, most of them immigrants. "There's a lot of fear" because of talk about the wall and other issues, but without the newcomers, "our businesses wouldn't grow," he said.
Abraham Algadi, executive director of the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp., said that Worthington and other towns that "open their arms to immigrants are thriving." Without them, "downtown would be 80 percent empty," he said.
John Garry, president of the Development Corporation of Austin — another First District city with a large immigrant population — said they help offset a workforce shortage. "We've worked really hard to embrace the diversity," he said.
Still, the divide is stark. Ebenezer Howe, Freeborn County's GOP chairman, said he got a call last week from a liberal who is "seeing the light" and will vote for some Republicans on Nov. 6. The reason: "Illegal immigration was a big deal for him," Howe said.
Dennis Schminke, a Republican official in Mower County, said it's a driving issue for some voters because "they like Trump and it's been kind of a signature issue for him."
Republicans are using immigration "as a scare issue," said Mark Halverson, DFL Party chairman in Blue Earth County. "It couldn't be a clearer context: Trump carried the district fairly handily."
Jim Hepworth of Lake Crystal is the First District's DFL chairman. Republicans "keep trying to push the issue," he said, but "I'm thinking that it's not ranking as high as the Republicans would like." Health care is atop the list of voter concerns, he said.
Immigration has surfaced in Republican Dave Hughes' campaign against Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson in a largely agricultural western Minnesota district that backed Trump by a big margin. Peterson has called for bipartisan immigration reform.
As a drone instructor pilot who trains flight crews for U.S. Borders and Customs Enforcement, Hughes said he's been meeting with farmers and small business owners who want to have a guest worker program "that really works."
He fully supports Trump's immigration proposals. Hughes said that Peterson can't get anything done on immigration because he's in the minority in Congress and can't influence even his party.
"He's one of the remaining Blue Dog Democrats, and … senior leadership of his party is vastly in a different direction — they're all going toward socialism, so any conservative tendencies that he has are not received," said Hughes.
In the metro
Republican U.S. Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen are linking their Democratic opponents, Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, to calls by some Democrats to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), even though Craig and Phillips themselves have not taken that position. Lewis has criticized Craig over the migrant caravan and said she was taking campaign money from "the leading advocate to abolish ICE, radical [Sen.] Kirsten Gillibrand."
Craig said that with control of Congress and the White House, Republicans have had every opportunity to fix a broken immigration system but haven't. She supported the 2013 immigration reform bill that passed the Senate.
"With less than two weeks until the election, Jason is outright lying about my views in an effort to … create division," she said in a statement.
In the Third District, Paulsen is campaigning as a moderate on immigration. This spring he signed a petition with Democrats and a few dozen Republicans to force a vote on immigration reform, particularly on legislation that would protect the immigrants who had been eligible for renewable reprieves from deportation and eligible for work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
And he called for an end to policies that would separate families at the border.
"I think the caravan itself is a direct challenge to the integrity of our borders and we shouldn't let people into the country illegally," Paulsen said in an interview. But he added that it's also emblematic of a larger problem with a broken system that is harming the economy and knocking out the next generation of innovators.
"We want to keep our economy growing strongly — with all these job openings, we need immigrants filling these positions," he said.
While Phillips does not support abolishing ICE, Paulsen said that if Democrats have the majority in Congress, they will hold votes on the plan and, "I think that is a big mistake."
Immigration has rarely come up in conversations with voters, according to the Phillips campaign, and people in the district are more focused on the cost of health care and getting special interest money out of politics.
"My family came to this country for the same reasons as many others: for opportunity and a place of refuge from persecution," said Phillips in a statement. "That's the America that I know and love: a compassionate America that values and welcomes hardworking people who come here with big dreams and a simple wish for safety and opportunity."
The National Republican Congressional Committee also has labeled Feehan too liberal in ads criticizing billionaire Democratic donor George Soros. Feehan worked at the Center for New American Security, which got money from Soros, who was among recipients of pipe bombs sent to high-profile Democrats.