Talk to any Republican party strategist and they will tell you that unless the GOP finds a way to appeal to Hispanics -- Mitt Romney won 27 percent among those voters in 2012 -- their prospects of winning and holding the White House are dim, at best. They're right. (We wrote an entire chapter in the "Gospel According to the Fix" about the damning demographics staring Republicans in the face.)
And yet, there's a strong case to be made that for Republicans to sign on to an immigration reform package that includes a way for undocumented immigrants to live and work legally in this country would be a major political mistake in advance of the 2014 midterms.
Midterm election tend to be battle between the two parties' bases. Turnout drops drastically from a presidential year as those voters who dialed in to choose the nation's top executive go back to their relatively politics-free existences while Members of Congress, Senators and governors try to get elected or reelected. The people who do vote tend to be -- although they are not exclusively -- activists of one of the two parties.
Because of that electoral reality, the key -- or at least one of the keys -- to winning in a midterm is finding issues that excite your base. So, in 2006, Democrats made major House gains because their base loathed then President George W. Bush and viewed that midterm as the last, best chance to send him a message about just how unhappy they were. Ditto 2010 when Republicans picked up 63-seats on the strength of their base's dislike of President Obama and his philosophy of governance -- as viewed through the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act.
Heading into the elections this fall then, Republicans should have an absolute political ace in the hole. Their base now dislikes Obama and Obamacare even more than they did in 2010. In the new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 89 percent of self-identified Republicans disapproved of how Obama was handling the implementation of the law including a stunning 79 percent who strongly disapproved. (The overall numbers were better, but not much, for Obama with 37 percent of registered voters approving of how he is handling the health care law and 59 percent disapproving.) Couple that deep hate -- and that it not too strong a word for how the GOP base feels about the Affordable Care Act -- with the fact that the battle for the Senate majority will be decided in GOP-leaning states like Alaska, North Carolina and Louisiana and Republicans seem to have a ready-made blueprint for success: Blast the healthcare law. Period.
Adding the prospect of immigration reform into the issue matrix for 2014 has the potential to diminish that base energy and complicate the party's strategy. In that same Post-ABC poll, 65 percent of Republicans said that undocumented workers should not be given a way to live and work legally in America. Asked how a candidate's support for a path to citizenship for undocumented workers might effect their vote, 45 percent of Republicans said it would make them less likely to vote for that candidate while just 17 percent said it would make them more likely to support the candidate. (The plan House Republicans unveiled on Thursday did not allow for a path to citizenship but rather a path to legality.)
Those numbers paint a stark picture of the disinterest from within the party's base to cut a deal with Democrats on immigration reform. They also make clear that Members of Congress who do so are three times more likely to be punished for making a deal than rewarded for it. That's even more true when you consider the remarkably small number of congressional districts with large Hispanic populations currently held by Republicans. Here's a chart from Amy Walter at the Cook Political Report that breaks this dearth down well:
Of the 24 districts with a Hispanic population of 25 percent or higher, half are places where the Hispanic vote amounts to something close to the only Democratic vote in heavily Republican seats. Only four of the 24 districts were won by President Obama in 2012, and only five others -- California's 25th, Florida's 25th, California's 39th, California's 49th and New Mexico's 2nd -- can be considered even potentially competitive between the two sides. Those nine districts represent roughly four percent of the 232 seats the Republican majority currently controls in the House.
Passing immigration reform is, without question, the right move for a Republican party with an eye on winning back the White House in 2016 and staying competitive in the presidential race for decades to come. But, viewed from the how-does-this-affect-me-and-my-political-career perspective that most rank and file House Republicans see the world, passing immigration reform is a far more mixed bag politically speaking.