On April 19, The Hill reported that 26 Republican governors have formed an “American Governors’ Border Strike Force” to improve intelligence sharing and better position the states to combat drug- and human-smuggling in their areas. The group’s goals are laudable, but the roll call of governors involved in the effort is as important as the role of the strike force itself, revealing that limiting immigration and border security have gone mainstream.
Some of The Governors Are Not a Surprise. Arizona’s presence on this list is not a surprise. A press release from Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R) touts that this strike force is modeled on the “Arizona Border Strike Force” that he has spearheaded since September 2015. Composed of 115 members, the goals of that state group are “to protect Arizona communities by stopping the flow of criminals, narcotics, weapons and ammunition trafficked in the state”.
Given the fact that Texas has been bearing the laboring oar on state-based border efforts under the Biden administration, it makes sense that Governor Greg Abbott (R-Texas) has signed on to the border strike force, too. And, as Missouri, Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia have all filed suits against DHS immigration malfeasance and nonfeasance under Biden, the presence of their governors on this list is less than surprising.
Nor is it a shock that Florida, whose Governor Ron DeSantis (R) (my last boss on Capitol Hill, when I was staff director for his National Security Subcommittee) has been a major critic of Biden’s border release policies, has also signed up.
The same is true of Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts (R), who way back in March 2021 complained that:
President Biden’s recent actions on immigration policy appear to be more about reversing decisions made by former President Trump than actually protecting the health and safety of Americans and people looking to follow the law to come to our country.
The attorneys general of Indiana, Alabama, Alaska, Mississippi, and Oklahoma all signed on to an amicus brief supporting Texas and Missouri in Biden v. Texas, a challenge to Biden administration attempts to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as “Remain in Mexico” that will be heard by the Supreme Court on April 26. Thus, it is logical for the governors of those states to join the latest strike force.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (R), who is locked in a contentious primary race against former Peach State Sen. David Perdue (R), is also an obvious choice to sign on to the strike force, if only to burnish his conservative bona fides.
The Outlier Governors. Then, there are the outliers on the strike force.
Even though Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) was DHS undersecretary under the George W. Bush administration and leads a solidly conservative state, he has only recently become outspoken about the crime and lawlessness that is occurring at the Southwest border.
To be fair, Hutchinson did (with reservations) sign an anti-sanctuary bill in 2019, and criticized HHS for its vetting of “sponsors” of unaccompanied alien children who have been released in the Natural State back in November. He is not exactly an “immigration hawk”, however.
Governor Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) was only sworn in January, but he won election in the “purple” Old Dominion by avoiding certain “hot-button” issues that would turn off center-left voters in the state’s D.C. suburbs, including (notably) illegal immigration.
One of the vagaries of Virginia law is that the governor cannot succeed himself (though he can run again after the next cycle), and so Youngkin may feel slightly more free to take positions on issues that might perturb lobbyists from Alexandria and soccer moms in Loudon.
Another governor who cannot run again is Maryland’s Larry Hogan (R), who is coming to the end of his second term in 2024. Hogan is the sort of centrist Republican whom even center-left residents of the Free State identify with, which likely explains why he enjoys a 74 percent approval rating in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two-to-one.
Hogan, however, passed on a bid to challenge incumbent Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in November in a race the governor had a good chance to win in a year that is shaping up favorably for the GOP. Hogan likely has national ambitions in 2024, however, and would be better positioned for a presidential run as a popular former governor than as a backbench senator taking votes his constituents may not like.
CNN’s political pundit Chris Cillizza opines that Hogan “is trying to represent a place where the resistance to the Trump cult of personality can congregate, in hopes of preserving a more traditional view of conservatism than the former President's wild populism.” I am going to get back to that assessment.
And then, there is Utah Governor Spencer Cox (R). When he was lieutenant governor in June 2018, he sent out a tweet criticizing the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy — under which illegal migrant parents were separated from their accompanying children for purposes of criminal prosecution — in some rather graphic terms:
Can’t sleep tonight. I know I shouldn’t tweet. But I’m angry. And sad. I hate what we’ve become. My wife wants to go & hold babies & read to lonely/scared/sad kids. I want to punch someone. Political tribalism is stupid. It sucks & it’s dangerous. We are all part of the problem.
— Spencer Cox (@SpencerJCox) June 20, 2018
And unlike many of his fellow governors, Cox wrote to Biden last August, telling the president that he was “eager” to resettle Afghan refugees in the Beehive State.
More generally, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has derided Cox as a “cut-rate” Gavin Newsom (referring to California’s exceptionally “progressive” governor), and National Review has stated that “Utah's Governor Spencer Cox Has a Lot of Explaining to Do” to conservatives in his state.
All of which makes his presence on this strike force even more interesting. There is a saying in Washington that “If you don’t represent your constituents, soon you won’t be representing your constituents,” and I assume that holds true in Salt Lake City, too.
That said, many Republican Utahns have a slightly different perspective on immigration than residents of other equally conservative areas (more than half of the population there are registered Republicans).
For example, in 2005, the Deseret News stated that then-Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) was viewed by what it termed “anti-immigration groups” as being “in the collective pocket of radical pro-immigration forces, which include the Chamber of Commerce and unions”. He became a “former” congressman when he was ousted in 2008 by Jason Chaffetz (another old boss), who portrayed Cannon as soft on immigration.
And while current Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) asserted that he was “more of a hawk on immigration” than Donald Trump in 2018, his position on immigration enforcement could best be described as more ambivalence than anything else.
Plainly, though, voters in Utah have had enough of the catastrophe at the Southwest border that has been unfolding since Biden took office in January 2021.
Border Patrol agents there apprehended more illegal migrants in FY 2021 than in any year in history, and FY 2022 promises to bring with it exponentially more illegal immigration, particularly after CDC orders directing the quick expulsion of illegal migrants at the border, issued pursuant to Title 42 of the U.S. Code in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, expire on May 23.
At that point, DHS expects Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border to be dealing with up to 18,000 illegal migrants per day — a rate of 540,000 per month, or up to 6.57 million a year — just less than double the population of Utah.
To also be fair to Cox, he did sign on to a September letter to Biden with 25 other GOP governors demanding “an open and constructive dialogue regarding border enforcement on behalf of U.S. citizens in our states and all those hoping to become U.S. citizens”. It does not appear that dialogue has occurred yet, so it explains why the most recent set of 26 governors are taking a more pro-active stance.
The Notable No-Shows. Youngkin had not been elected when that letter was sent, but Hogan and Hutchinson were also signatories to it. One governor who did sign the letter who is not participating in the American Governors’ Border Strike force is Governor Charlie Baker (R-Mass.).
Baker opposes the current version of a bill under consideration before the state legislature that would provide driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. (Baker is concerned that they would also be registered to vote, and about the fact that the new licenses would be identical to standard licenses.) He also supports Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson — a big proponent of immigration enforcement — for a fifth term.
All of this makes Baker’s absence from the strike force a head scratcher, but he is not alone when it comes to northeastern GOP governors in taking a pass. Vermont Governor Phil Scott (R) is also a no-show, leaving New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu as the only New England Republican in the effort.
Electoral Politics in 2022 and Beyond. Sununu’s position is likely not coincidental. Granite State Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) — who is seeking reelection in a tightly contested race — is feeling enough heat over Biden’s handling of the border that she is touting tighter enforcement and just returned from a trip to Arizona and Texas. Hassan’s recent trip and stance have been ripped by both the left and the right back home.
There is no reason for the governor — who himself also passed on a senatorial bid (against Hassan) in November — to give her an out.
In addition to Hogan, there are also rumors that Sununu, DeSantis, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) — who has also joined the task force — and possibly even Abbott are mulling a run for the White House in 2024. To the degree that they would want to keep their options open, membership in the group is a no-brainer. And given the heat Cox has drawn from the right, he likely needs the relief.
What the presence of so many centrist Republican governors on this task force reveals is that immigration enforcement generally and border security in particular are no longer just a concern of the right. With 60 percent of Americans in one recent poll worried about illegal immigration and Biden well underwater with voters in his handling of it in several others, limiting immigration and securing the border is mainstream, a fact that the president and his fellow Democrats ignore at their electoral peril.