Border security is front and center at first Republican presidential debate

“Everybody is well aware that this polls exceedingly well among Republican primary voters,” says Todd Gillman of The Dallas Morning News. “But in fact, it also polls exceedingly well among all voters.”

By Rhonda FanningAugust 24, 2023 4:11 pm,

Eight Republican contenders for the GOP presidential nomination took the stage in Milwaukee for a debate on Wednesday night – and notably absent were the frontrunner in the polls, former President Donald Trump, and a well-known name among Texas Republicans, former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, who failed to qualify for the event.

Among the many issues covered, one stood out, especially in light of a Texas Politics Project survey earlier this year about what a majority of Texans say they consider to be the biggest problem facing the Lone Star State: border security and immigration.

Todd Gillman, Washington bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, said the first debate of the presidential election cycle went over quite well for Texas Republicans.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You know, everyone said that the elephant that wasn’t in the room was going to be front and center here. But I think there was another elephant in the room, and that was Texas. It seemed like every candidate had something to say about border security and immigration last night. 

Todd Gillman: Just about. One observation I have seen is that “send troops to the border” is the new “build the wall.” But in fact, those messages weren’t mutually exclusive because we heard both of those messages.

Well, what do we hear specifically from the candidates? And did any of their proposals or ideas when it came to border security and immigration stand out to you?

Well, there’s clearly a consensus among Republican candidates that the border is not sufficiently guarded and that Biden has screwed it up. And everybody is well aware that this polls exceedingly well among Republican primary voters. But in fact, it also polls exceedingly well among all voters.

Nobody really thinks that the Biden administration is doing a terrific job along the border. So the consensus was already there on stage going into the debate that more needs to be done. And what I saw was jockeying to sound the toughest.

Ron DeSantis has been already out there, previously saying, “I will send troops to the border.” And he was talking tough. He’s going to send American active duty military to hunt down and kill the cartels. Other candidates also said that they would send troops.

There were some outliers. Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor, also served as the head of the DEA during the George W. Bush administration, so he obviously has a lot of firsthand experience with the narcos. He was kind of putting the brakes on that idea. He said, look, you know, we’ve got Border Patrol and law enforcement can use lethal force, but let’s hold the military in reserve for things like intelligence gathering.

That didn’t seem to be the message that carried the night. It was a lot more about tough talk. And Tim Scott got a good line in there about, you know, for only another $10 billion, we could finish that wall.

Yeah. He also said something about firing all the IRS agents and doubling the number of Border Patrol agents, something along those lines.

It’s a twofer of of a shot, because that’s also a winning message among Republicans: the myth of the 87,000 more IRS agents that supposedly the Biden administration is going to hire.

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How do you think this went over in Texas? 

Well, I think it went over quite well for Texas Republicans. I mean, there seems to be a lot of support for Governor Abbott’s border efforts – Operation Lone Star, $10 billion effort. Governor DeSantis and actually Hutchinson, when he was governor of Arkansas, had also sent troops, National Guard, to the border to help out. That wasn’t explicitly discussed at the debate. And the North Dakota governor has even sent troops down there.

It’s a winning message for Texas Republicans, for sure, to say, hey, listen, whatever, you got to do to tighten the border and keep out the illegal border crossers, we’re for it.

How do you see this playing out? Of course, this is primarily aimed at an audience that’s voting in the primaries. The general election is another thing. How do you think this will play in that general election cycle? 

Well, it’s a polarizing issue. As I said, it is a very broad perception across the political spectrum that the border is not secure enough. Everybody is concerned about the the flood of fentanyl and Republicans are more concerned than Democrats are about the influx of migrants.

In a general election, I’m not sure that this moved the needle a whole lot, because this was pretty conventional conservative Republican positioning for the most part: Talking tough on the border and immigration is what Republicans are expected to do. And so nobody alienated anybody who wasn’t already going to be alienated. Immigrant advocates and progressive Democrats are not going to be happy with any of these candidates.

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