The nightmare scenario for Republicans on immigration

This man would love to debate immigration reform in 2015. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

This man would love to debate immigration reform in 2015. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The conventional wisdom has it that Republicans are taking a great risk by contemplating immigration reform right now, because it could divide the party and alienate the base heading into the 2014 elections. Some say there’s no urgency to act because Latinos don’t matter in the midterms and Republicans can always do reform in 2015, repairing relations in time for 2016.

But what if waiting until 2015 is actually worse for the GOP?

Here’s an alternate reading: If the party tackles reform in 2015, it could get tied up in GOP presidential primary politics, pulling the GOP field to the right and leaving the eventual nominee saddled with extreme party rhetoric and positions on the issue, further alienating Latinos in the general election — exactly as happened in 2012. So while it might be difficult for Republicans to get reform done this year, braving it might be better than waiting.

I ran this scenario by several GOP strategists. They agreed it’s a real problem.

“If Republicans wait until 2015 to tackle this issue, that puts a very emotional and controversial issue right in the middle of the Republican presidential selection process,” veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres, a supporter of reform, tells me. “The opportunity for demagoguery will be exceedingly prevalent if we wait that long.”

“It could drag the entire field to the right on immigration, which is the last thing we need if we want to be competitive in the America of the 21st century as well as in the 2016 presidential election,” Ayres continued. “It’s a very real threat.”

Consider the role of Ted Cruz, who is expected to run for president. He’s already attacking the new GOP immigration principles as “amnesty.” If Republicans try to pass reform in 2015, he’ll have an opening to demagogue the heck out of the issue to appeal to a chunk of right wing GOP primary voters. He’ll do all he can to turn the GOP primary process into an anti-amnesty sludge-fest.

Is that what Republicans want? Opponents of reform sure want that to happen. Democrats probably wouldn’t mind it all that much, either.

If one candidate does stake out a position as the anti-amnesty standard-bearer, it could complicate things for GOP candidates (Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie have all embraced reform to varying degrees) who actually want to support, and campaign on, some sort of immigration solution that deals with the 11 million.

“You could see a scenario where some of the candidates want to do something solutions-oriented on immigration, but then one candidate somehow wins Iowa on a “no amnesty’ pledge,” Patrick Hynes, a New Hampshire-based political strategist who was an adviser on both the McCain and Romney campaigns, tells me. “Then the other canddiates would have to morphe their positions to the right, thereby buttonholing themselves when the inevitable debate comes up again in the next primary states.”

“As we saw in 2012, just by virtue of having this debate, we alienate the fastest growing portion of the electorate,” Hynes continued. “That could result in us starting the next general election on our heels.”

This question concerns the timing of when to act, not whether to act at all. Many Republicans say the party needs to do something on reform, to repair relations with Latinos – just not this year. But as Matt Lewis observes about the need for GOP action now: “There really is no good time to eat your vegetables.”

Indeed, waiting could make things worse. After Mitt Romney lost the Latino vote by historic margins in 2012 – partly because the GOP primary had forced him to adopt a “self deport” position – Republicans immediately resolved to avoid such rhetoric in the future. But what happens if this debate restarts as the GOP presidential primary gets underway? We could see a rerun.

Worse, if the immigration debate gets tangled up in presidential primary politics, it could get even harder for Congressional Republicans to actually get reform done. If reform fails in 2015 after another contentious debate, of course, Republicans will have only made their Latino problem worse — just as we’re heading into the 2016 presidential election.

Also on The Plum Line

GOP Obamacare sabotage works