Why a ‘path to citizenship’ remains politically perilous for Republicans

April 3, 2013

Nearly six in 10 Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented workers in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, but that number is drastically lower among self-identified Republicans  -- evidence of the political peril for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and other GOP politicians involved in the negotiations on a compromise immigration bill.


Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is a leading GOP voice in the immigration reform talks. AP photo.

Just 35 percent of Republicans support the idea of a path to citizenship while 60 percent oppose it in the Post-ABC poll, which was produced by Capital Insight. Among self-described "conservative Republicans," the numbers are even more negative toward a path, with just 30 percent supporting the idea. And, Republican support is waning -- ticking down seven points since a Post-ABC survey in February.

At the same time, Democratic support is reaching new highs -- moving up to 73 percent from 68 percent in February -- and more than eight in ten (84 percent) self-identified liberal Democrats support providing a path for undocumented workers to gain legal status.

Those numbers make two things clear: 1) That the path to citizenship debate is increasingly divided along partisan lines (there is a 38-point gap between Democrats and Republicans on the "support" question) and 2) That being involved in a comprehensive immigration reform deal might not be such good politics -- at least as it relates to the party's base -- for ambitious Republicans.

We've written before about the risk Rubio, who is widely regarded as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, is taking by involving himself in the "Gang of 8" negotiations on a comprehensive immigration plan. And, it's clear that his statement over the weekend about no deal having been reached was designed to make clear to conservatives that he wasn't capitulating to the likes of New York Sen. Chuck Schumer on a deal.

But, the numbers in the Post-ABC poll suggest that Rubio -- and other Republicans who vote for a bill that includes a path to citizenship -- could well face the ire of their base regardless of what else is in the legislation.

Past attempts to do a "big" immigration package have been hamstrung by similar sentiments within the GOP base. (Arizona Sen. John McCain walked away from attempts to craft a comprehensive bill when it became clear that his involvement was destroying his chances at being the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.)  It's not clear whether seeing numbers like these will make the Rubio skittish and tempted to walk away from the prospect of a deal.

Such a move would be a major setback in the GOP's attempts to court Hispanic voters (80 percent of whom support a path to citizenship) and could damage Republicans' chances of winning back the White House in 2016.

It's easy to criticize that short-term-gain-long-term-pain thinking from afar, but remember that the first concern for Rubio and many of his ambitious GOP colleagues is winning the party's nomination. And these numbers suggest that backing a path to citizenship could be toxic to those hopes.

Sanford wins GOP runoff: As expected, former governor Mark Sanford (R) advanced to the special general election in South Carolina's 1st district on Tuesday night, defeating underdog Curtis Bostic 57 percent to 43 percent in a runoff election. Sanford will now face Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a race that polls show to be competitive, despite the district's strong GOP tilt. If Democratic outside groups start to spend money in this race, it will be a clear sign the party thinks it has a shot of victory.

Fixbits:

AP is dropping "illegal immigrant" from its stylebook.

Ben Carson said white liberal critics are "the most racist people there are."

Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) will challenge Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)

Ready for Hillary PAC officially launched.

Former congressman Mike Ross (D) resigned his job at Southwest Power Pool, spurring speculation that he will run for governor of Arkansas.

President Obama outlined an initiative to map the human brain.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he supports "marriage" for same-sex couples.

A tea party group is launching ads for Massachusetts Senate candidate Michael Sullivan (R). But will it backfire?

Must-reads:

"Obama administration pushes banks to make home loans to people with weaker credit" -- Zachary A. Goldfarb, Washington Post

"Newark’s problems weigh on Cory Booker’s potential Senate bid" -- Nia-Malika Henderson, Washington Post

"Lawmakers in New York Tied to Bribery Plot in Mayor Race" -- Michael Wilson and William K. Rashbaum, New York Times

"Frequent Congressional Social Media Users Are Outliers" -- Emily Cahn, Roll Call

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Sean Sullivan · April 2, 2013