Jeff Sessions suit against California is political bad news for Republicans

  • Hundreds of protesters march in Sacramento as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses a law enforcement gathering to denounce California’s sanctuary laws and threaten reprisals. Photo: Jessica Christian, The Chronicle

It may be years before the courts decide the Trump administration’s lawsuit that seeks to overturn California’s sanctuary laws, but the political impact will be felt in just months. And it likely won’t help Republicans.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ramped up the political tension Wednesday when he told a law enforcement gathering in Sacramento that California “is using every power it has — and powers it doesn’t — to frustrate federal law enforcement. So you can be sure I’m going to use every power I have to stop them.”

His underlying message will frighten immigrant communities and should energize Latino voters, who already overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. That could be a welcome boon for Democrats in the June primary election, because fewer Latinos vote in midterm elections than during presidential years.

And Republican candidates will feel pain as they embrace Trump’s law-and-order stance to try to attract conservative primary voters, an embrace that will move them further from California’s political mainstream should they advance to the general election in November.

“Politically, what it does is help Democrats by mobilizing Latino voters,” said Luis Alvarado, a GOP strategist and president of the Latino Legislative Roundtable. “As I listened to Jeff Sessions speak, I imagined TV commercials on behalf of Democrats in the state.”

While some analysts predict that the increasing threat of immigration raids has energized Latino voters in recent elections in Texas and Virginia, GOP strategist and Latino vote expert Mike Madrid said “that’s not really excitement. Being ‘energized’ usually means you’re happy. These people are voting out of anger and fear. And California is the mother lode of that. This will absolutely affect the outcome of races in California in June.”

Overall, 58 percent of likely California voters, including 53 percent of independent voters, 54 percent of whites and 80 percent of Latinos, support sanctuary city policies, according to a January survey by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Increased Latino turnout could affect California’s gubernatorial campaign in multiple ways. During his speech Wednesday, Sessions blasted Democrat Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who leads in most polls, for praising Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf when she warned last month of impending federal immigration sweeps.

“Bragging about and encouraging the obstruction of our law enforcement and the law is an embarrassment to this proud and important state,” Sessions said about Newsom without using his name.

Alvarado said being name-checked — even anonymously — by Trump’s attorney general would be worn as a badge of honor by Newsom.

“They’re popping Champagne at Newsom’s headquarters because Jeff Sessions cemented him as the head of the progressives,” Alvarado…

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