Republicans find religion on immigration reform. Is it too late?

November 9, 2012

In the three days since the 2012 election, a who's who of Republicans have admitted the obvious: the party's current position on immigration is politically untenable.

"I think members on both sides of the aisle want to resolve this issue," House Speaker John Boehner said at a press conference on Capitol Hill Friday morning. Earlier in the week he told ABC News: "This issue has been around far too long. A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all." 

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed that sentiment Friday morning in an interview with CBS. "Right now for me the most powerful argument is that the changing demographics in the country really necessitate an even bigger tent for the Republican Party," she said. 

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called today for the building of a border fence and for amnesty for the illegal immigrants already in this country. Even conservative talk show host Sean Hannity had a change of heart, saying that his position on the issue had "evolved" and that Republicans needed to find a way to deal with the issue and move beyond it.

The message in all of these statements is a simple one: We get it.  

But, a broader question remains: While the Republican establishment -- and even some of its conservative elements like Hannity -- appear to have found religion on the need to cut a deal on immigration reform, can they sell it to a party base that continues to vehemently oppose anything that condones illegal immigrants gaining legal status?

While Boehner's comments on immigration have drawn the lion's share of attention, it's worth noting that some within the House Republican conference quickly voiced their strong opposition to any sort of deal.

Here's what Iowa Rep. Steve King, who is already rumored to be a Senate candidate in 2014, tweeted out shortly after Boehner's comments went public:

And, while it's easy to dismiss King's voice as an isolated one, it's worth remembering that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney adopted the position of "self deportation" for illegal immigrants during the presidential primary process for fear of being labeled insufficiently conservative by the GOP base. 

Check out this chart detailing the findings from a major national survey by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation that aimed to slice and dice the various wings of the two national parties.

Six in 10 Republicans aligned with the tea party favor deporting illegal immigrants to their native country. A majority of "old school Republicans" -- described in the survey as "more male, white educated and wealthy" in the Post-Kaiser findings -- feel the same way. (For more on the various segments within the Republican party, check out this cool graphic.) 

What that data suggest is that no matter what the party leadership believes should be done on immigration, there will almost certainly be opposition from within the tea party wing to almost anything that allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country. And, in case you haven't been paying attention to Republican primaries over the last few years, that wing of the party has a huge amount of influence in picking nominees.

Despite those daunting numbers, Republicans argue that their Hispanic problem can be fixed and cite as evidence the victory of Nevada Sen. Dean Heller on Tuesday -- even as President Obama was easily carrying the Silver State thanks to his overwhelming majorities among Latinos.

"[Heller] embraced [Marco] Rubio's Dream Act alternative," said one senior GOP strategist. "He copied [Rubio's] rhetoric and tone on immigration." Added the source:  "The GOP also needs to put forth ideas to promote upward mobility. We are working on an agenda, which we think will have great appeal to all people, especially Hispanics."

(Worth noting: Heller overperformed Romney among Latinos but still only won 25 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polling.)

What's clear is that GOP leaders -- and even some conservative thought leaders -- have woken up to the fact that the party faces a massive demographic disadvantage in future elections if they can't find a way to, if not win Hispanics, lose the group by far less than the 44-point margin of the 2012 election.

What's not clear is whether the base of the party is willing to go along to get along or whether they will rebel against the establishment figures within their party begging them to see the political writing on the wall.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake | November 9, 2012