How immigration threatens to tear the GOP apart

February 21, 2013

The Republican political establishment sees immigration reform as a political necessity. Much of the party's base sees it as the end of the rule of law.

And therein lies the problem for a party trying to pick itself up off the mat following an across-the-board defeat in 2012.


Arizona Sen. John McCain is confronted on immigration during a town hall Tuesday. AP photo.

"The GOP faces a choice between the politics of math and the politics of anecdote," explained Glen Bolger, a prominent Republican pollster. "The politics of math is pretty clear. The numbers of Hispanics are growing, and politically we cannot afford to get a shrinking piece of a growing pie. The politics of anecdote is that illegal immigrants are only taking jobs, selling drugs, and joining gangs. That’s clearly not the case, and we cannot pretend that it is."

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's testy townhall typifies the divide between a party in Washington that, for the most part, simply wants to find a way to get to a "yes" on immigration reform and an activist base who views that effort as contradictory to the foundational principles of the party.

McCain repeatedly sought to emphasize the need to find a responsible solution for the 11 million undocumented workers in the country but found himself shouted down and challenged by a handful of attendees.

While the back and forth between McCain and his constituents has drawn most of the attention, there's ample evidence that there's plenty of resistance among rank-and-file Republicans for the sorts of common-ground solutions that many of the party's elected leaders seem set on pursuing.

In a Washington Post-ABC poll conducted earlier this month, in fact, a majority of self-identified Republicans said they opposed a path to citizenship -- the key plank of a comprehensive immigration reform measure. That was a marked contrast to the majority support for a path to citizenship among Democrats and independents.

Here's the breakdown:

What those numbers suggest is that there could be primary trouble for Republicans who vote for any sort of comprehensive immigration reform plan that includes a path to citizenship. And that could be a major disincentive for GOP politicians to support such a proposal -- a short-term gain that would almost certainly provide longer-term pain for the party.

(We saw this sort of short-term political calculus during the 2012 GOP presidential primaries. Mitt Romney adopted a position that undocumented workers should "self deport" in hopes of staying in the good graces of the party's base. That position may have helped him win the primary, but cost him dearly in the general election as he won a meager 27 percent of Hispanic voters.)

It's not clear how Republicans can bridge the growing divide between how the establishment views immigration (a political problem that needs to be solved yesterday) and how some significant portion of the base views it (a foundational principle about not rewarding rule-breakers).

Henry Barbour, part of a group within the Republican National Committee tasked with figuring out what went wrong in 2012 and how to fix it in future elections, says that the key to solving the party's problems with Latinos is less about specific policies than about changing how the GOP talks to the Hispanic community. "Our issue with Hispanic voters is as much about tone and attitude as it is about immigration reform," Barbour explains.

The problem inherent in that statement, of course, is that those willing to take the hardest line, rhetorically speaking, on immigration tend to win Republican primaries. And, politicians -- in both parties -- always put political survival ahead of all other concerns.

If Republicans go through another election cycle in 2014 in which candidates espousing strong opposition to any sort of compromise on immigration are rewarded by winning primaries, it could well do permanent damage to the party's standing in the Hispanic community and, by extension, its paths to the White House in 2016 and beyond.

It's no exaggeration then to say that getting immigration right, politically speaking, is absolutely critical to Republicans' electoral hopes over the next decade or more.

Fixbits:

Obama says he has a year to get his agenda done.

A reporter for the conservative Weekly Standard tried to get access to Chuck Hagel's archives at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, but was turned away, since the archive has yet to open and won't for another two years.

Actress and potential Kentucky Senate candidate Ashley Judd (D) has reportedly met with the DSCC.

Some Democrats are calling for House Republicans to come back to Washington and start working on a deal to avert the sequester.

Mitt Romney will speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March.

The DSCC raised $4.2 million in January.

Former congressman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) is launching an effort to get congressional offices to hire more minority staffers.

Former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin (D) pleads not guilty to corruption.

Must-reads:

"Can Republicans Win the Senate in 2014?" -- Nate Silver, New York Times

"All Signs Point to Kelly Victory in Illinois Special Election" -- Abby Livingston, Roll Call

"You May Be Right, Mr. President, But This Is Crazy" -- Ron Fournier, National Journal

"Brewing GOP Primary Could Spoil Landrieu Challenge" -- Joshua Miller, Roll Call

"Republican senator John McCain is still raising questions and hackles" -- Jason Horowitz, Washington Post

"Marco Rubio: The Electable Conservative?" -- Nate Silver, New York Times

"The GOP star you've never heard of" -- Alexander Burns, Politico

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Sean Sullivan | February 20, 2013