WASHINGTON (CNN) - While President Donald Trump doubles down on the incendiary immigration rhetoric that excited his base in 2016, the most vulnerable Republicans in 2018 find themselves under renewed attack from Democrats over the administration's "zero tolerance" policy at the border.
The battle is being waged in suburban House districts currently represented by Republicans, arguably the most important districts in the fight for control of the House. There, members of the President's party are facing pressure to distance themselves from the Trump administration's policy that has led to the separation of children from their parents at the southern border.
Particularly worrisome, Republican operatives say, is that the images and sound of children in detention facilities could have a lasting impact with suburban women and drown out the economic-success message the party has been pushing.
The responses from Republican members in these districts to Trump's policy have varied drastically. Some have broken with the administration completely. Others have criticized the policy but not the President or the administration, instead pointing blame at Washington inaction on immigration in general.
In her suburban district outside of DC, Virginia's Rep. Barbara Comstock released a three-paragraph statement in which she called for "a humane, bipartisan solution for all of these children and families," but made no direct mention of Trump, instead pointing to the "status quo" and the "broken immigration system" as causes for the family separations.
Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, Comstock's challenger, responded to the statement by saying Comstock used "many words to say nothing."
"POTUS can end this awful policy today, but by lacking the courage to demand that, she supports these innocent children being used as political pawns," Wexton tweeted.
Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, who represents the suburbs outside of Denver, took a drastically different approach, saying he'd spoken with California's Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein about backing her bill to halt the family separations.
"This isn't who we are," he said in a statement. "My colleagues should mark their words and this moment -- history won't remember well those who support the continuation of this policy."
Coffman's opponent, Democrat Jason Crow, said his campaign is holding a protest outside a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Aurora on Wednesday, where he'll read Coffman's voting record and the Republican's own words from previous immigration debates.
"We're going to hold Mike Coffman accountable for helping create this mess," Crow said. He said Coffman "likes to talk a game when he's in the district, and then he goes to DC and falls in line behind Trump and Paul Ryan."
He pointed out that Coffman "never mentioned the word Trump in that statement. So he seems to be more afraid of Donald Trump than he is (concerned) about doing the right thing."
The national backlash over the Trump administration's immigration policy has given Democrats an immigration focus the entire party can rally around. Until now, the party faced divisions over the issue, with 10 Democratic senators up for re-election in states Trump won facing a much different calculation from the House challengers in the 23 GOP-held seats in districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Democratic candidates and operatives are taking an approach similar to the party's handling of the Russia investigation, saying the issue is beyond politics while allowing news coverage and Trump's own highlighting of it every day on Twitter to drive voters' attention and focus.
"This comes back to the larger fact about Donald Trump and his administration, which is that they talk about their scandals and their self-made crises better than anyone and with a bigger megaphone than anyone," said one Democratic strategist involved in midterm races, who was granted anonymity to frankly discuss the politics of the family separations.
"Voters are well aware of what the Trump administration is doing to young children on the border."
For Republicans, fears are mounting that the controversy will drown out their ability to sell voters on a humming economy.
"This runs the risk of undercutting the progress Republicans have made with these independent, suburban women who were already turned off by some of the President's rhetoric," said one Republican strategist working on midterm races. "This ties into the refugee issue, too -- the more humanitarian issues. Heartstrings issues, if you will."
"It's hard to erase an image of a crying toddler in a cage at the border looking for their parent. People are human and they have human emotion, and that's what this is right now," the strategist added.
Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who represents the suburbs north of Philadelphia, issued a strongly worded statement on Monday but did not mention Trump, instead calling on Congress to act to stop the separation of families.
"This extreme measure must end," Fitzpatrick said. "It is an ineffective deterrent against illegal immigration, and children should not have to face traumatic ordeals given the actions of their parents. We have waited over a year and a half for Congress to resolve the crisis on our borders. Inaction is unacceptable."
His opponent, Democrat Scott Wallace, went directly after Fitzpatrick on Tuesday, saying in a statement, "Brian Fitzpatrick's inaction in the face of this kind of cruelty is exactly why I'm running for Congress. He's in office, he's in the party in power and yet he claims he still needs to find out 'what's going on down there.' News flash: It's bad."
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