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A trio of Democratic senators—Booker, Warren, Harris—seem willing to bet that placating the far left on immigration will position them favorably in 2020. But are they sacrificing their party’s fractious unity for their own opportunity?

As we recover from the ravages of the most recent shutdown of the U.S. government, a blip you may have noticed between last Saturday morning and the following Monday afternoon, the Democratic Party must confront some political realities. While immigration will favor Democrats over the long term, it will be a nuisance for them in the short term, particularly in 2018 and 2020. The splits within the party are small in comparison to the chasms we see in the G.O.P., which comprises everyone from Lindsey Graham who, on this issue, might as well be Chuck Schumer, to Iowa Congressman Steve King, who might as well be Kim Jong Un. But they are still significant enough to create headaches. The Democratic Party is already to the left of the median voter on immigration, but its rising stars—Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, among them—are to the left of their own party. And their thinly-veiled presidential ambitions could be a problem if they want a wave that will flip the balance of power in Congress.

As mentioned, if we’re measuring in decades, time is on the Democratic side. Immigrants to the United States favor Democrats over Republicans by roughly two to one. It is thanks, primarily, to migration, for instance, that California went from reliably Republican to reliably Democratic in the space of 20 years. Similar transformations seem possible, even likely, in Colorado and Nevada and, over a longer span, Texas. Whether the platform of that future Democratic Party will bear much resemblance to that of today is impossible to say, as both parties will re-adjust to the times, but at the very least, a movement to the left from traditional conservative positions on the Second Amendment, health care, and welfare seems likely, and these all favor candidates whose names are followed by (D).

This year, though, we see rather a lot of Democratic senators in red states that didn’t enjoy being forced into brinkmanship over what their opponents could deride as the prioritization of foreign nationals who are in the country illegally. Five sat out the original fight altogether, and 26 more gratefully jumped ship on Monday. Whatever data these senators were viewing, the numbers must have been even more frightening than they’d expected. In politics, a focus on issues can lead people to forget that prioritization is half the battle. It’s one thing to support legalization for DACA recipients; it’s another to say it’s top of the agenda, or the country gets it.

As awkward as the shutdown may have been for Democrats like Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, however, all of the presidency-eyeing stars of the Democratic Party wished, officially at least, to keep it going. While most Democrats voted to end the shutdown, those who didn’t included Booker, Harris, Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand. This, of course, reflects the blueness of their states (Dianne Feinstein also voted against stopping the shutdown), but it also suggests a belief that taking a hard-line stance on immigration, from the left, is the price of a fighting chance in the next presidential primaries. Such thinking might be valid, but things get trickier when it comes to weighing it against the sentiments of the broader public.

Among Democratic voters, concern over illegal immigration has plummeted, dropping from over 60 percent in 2002 to about half that today. Democratic senators, even those in red states, also feel comfortable voting to grant citizenship to people in the country illegally. Every Democrat in the Senate voted in favor of a sweeping legalization in 2013. As Vox’s Dara Lind notes, it is increasingly immigration activists “who set the agenda for the party.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi defers enough to this agenda that she raised minimal protest when, a few months ago, she was shouted down by immigrant-rights protesters during her own press conference.

The swing to the left has occurred with such speed, however, that Democrats have barely paused to consider the risks. A decade ago, Democrats supported measures such as fencing on the southern border. Today, nearly all forms of enforcement or restrictions have become concessions, and many mechanisms to enforce the law are at this point considered unacceptable. These include popular measures such as E-Verify checks for workplace hiring. This is in keeping with a drift in elite sentiment, which has increasingly come to view enforcement as unseemly, reminiscent of how the Beatles, anno 1967, viewed with distaste the idea of cracking down on shoplifters in their short-lived Apple Boutique.

Most Americans may be with the Dreamers in wanting to give them a chance to stay in the country and become citizens. But the equation changes when Democrats shut down the government over the matter. Appearances become even less favorable when such actions seem to be in response to loud demands from foreign nationals whose presence is in the country is thanks to warm lenience overriding cold law. Such episodes threaten Democratic prospects in states that aren’t dark blue.

To be sure, one factor that helps Democrats is that business interests tend to line up against enforcement provisions, and Republicans therefore must balance their base against their donors. Republicans also prefer to keep immigration out of central focus during their campaigns, which is one reason why Donald Trump roiled the waters so much by breaking with that practice. This allows many Democrats to sidestep some of the more awkward manifestations of their divides on immigration.

At the same time, Democrats know that nine percent of Barack Obama’s voters flipped to Trump, and the possibility that immigration played a role in this cannot be comforting. Blue-state stars like Booker and Warren can count on easy re-election in their own states, but red-state holdouts like Joe Manchin cannot. What’s more, once the primaries are over in 2020, Democrats will either have to win back the voters they lost in 2016, or move far enough to the left that they energize a larger share of their voter base by yielding even more to party activists. That’s a high-risk approach.

One early gauge of public opinion on immigration will come later this year, when numerous red-state and purple-state Democrats are up for re-election. If they win big, then Warren and Booker continue their march unthwarted. If they don’t, then we’ll see a crop of lesser-known Democrats joining the race for 2020, and they’ll give Republicans, and maybe even Trump, more ground than the base would like. We’ll see that reflected in their rhetoric on the issue in which Democrats have ventured furthest out in a vanguard—or furthest out on a limb.

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