Why immigration (probably) won’t sink Marco Rubio in 2016

If Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) runs for president in 2016, he won't need to worry about immigration hurting his chances in the Republican primary campaign nearly as much as you might think.


Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Yes, you read that right. Rubio, who helped spearhead a sweeping reform package and subsequently saw his stock fall in the conservative base of the Republican Party. The senator who put lots of energy behind a bill that has gone nowhere in the GOP-controlled House.

The reason why immigration probably won't doom Rubio's chances has less to do with him than it does with the field of Republicans he'd likely face if he makes a White House bid. Most of the biggest-name prospects for 2016 are not well-positioned to attack Rubio from the right on immigration because of where they stand on the issue.

"Right now the only weakness that sticks out on Rubio if he runs is [the] immigration situation. By the time voters are through evaluating all the Republican candidates on the issue, he may not likely stick out as much because most of them will have to politically defend themselves on it," said veteran Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who thinks the GOP should pursue immigration reform.

Over the weekend, potential White House hopeful and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) said that many people who illegally come to the United States do so out of an "act of love" for their families, thus it amounts to a "different kind of crime." A defender of the reform measure that Rubio pushed toward passage in the Senate, Bush has faced heavy skepticism on the right about his stance on immigration, which came under renewed scrutiny in light of latest comments.

Bush is a Rubio mentor and many Republicans believe it is unlikely the field will include both of them. But even if Bush doesn't run, Rubio is looking at potentially opposing a slate of candidates who are hardly immigration hardliners, including:

* New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who signed a measure allowing in-state tuition rates for students brought to the country illegally and has sidestepped questions about a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which many conservatives don't favor. (The bill Rubio pushed includes a new path to citizenship.)

* Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who unveiled a  reform plan of his own last year, about which he wrote: "As for a pathway to citizenship: For folks who came here illegally but are willing to gain proficiency in English, pay a fine, and demonstrate a willingness to assimilate, we should require them to work here and pay taxes for a substantial period of time after obtaining legal status before they have the opportunity to begin the process of applying for U.S. citizenship."

* Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who supports a path to citizenship.

* Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who tried to drum up support for comprehensive reform behind the scenes in the House last year.

* Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who voted against the "Gang of Eight" bill Rubio helped craft, but has called for Republicans to move "beyond deportation" in order to make inroads with Latino voters.

Indeed, Paul would have some room to go after Rubio on immigration if he wants. But he's trying to appeal to the GOP establishment donor base which still views him with some skepticism. That same base of the party largely favors reform, so attacking Rubio on immigration would be a risky move.

One potential candidate who can clearly run to Rubio's right on immigration is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). But the same can be said of Cruz relative to the rest of the field on a number of issues, given how strictly conservative he has been in the Senate.

In short, it doesn't look like Rubio is going to face an immigration blitz from his opponents. And if he does, he has plenty of fodder for counterattacks.

Conservative strategist Keith Appell said Rubio has done an effective job on other issues important to the conservative base like Obamacare, poverty and government dependence. But he cautioned that immigration continues to energize the conservative base.

"If he continues on this track he will benefit from a large reservoir of good will that many conservatives still have for him. But immigration remains a hot button issue for many conservatives, independents and tea party supporters, and a strong coalition has made it clear any reform must put full border security first," said Appell.

Immigration hurt Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in the 2012 presidential primary. His support for a measure that gave children of illegal immigrants access to in-state college tuition rates came under attack from his opponents, including eventual nominee Mitt Romney. Romney adopted a conservative stance on immigration that many Republicans later believed hurt his standing with Latino voters in the general election.

Many Republicans saw Romney's poor performance among Hispanic voters -- he won only 27 percent, worse than John McCain in 2008 -- as a wake up call for party and urged a different tone on immigration, lest the party risk losing even more ground to Democrats in national races among a growing share of the electorate.

That's one key reason why 2016 is shaping up as a different kind of primary than 2012. Many donors and other GOP power brokers eager to win after two straight general election defeats will be trying to avoid the GOP primary spats that hurt the party in November.

And 2016 isn't going to be 2014, either. Immigration has stalled in the House this year partly because of midterm considerations. Republican leaders are sensitive to the worries of some rank and file members who are concerned they might draw conservative primary challengers if they support reform.

It's possible that immigration reform could pass in the next Congress. Democrats have been eager to pass it for years. Republicans eyeing a presidential election that attracts a broader and more moderate pool of voters might be persuaded to come around in 2015. That could allow Rubio to win some new allies in the party.

All of which is to say that there are plenty of reasons to think that a divisive battle over immigration won't define the 2016 primary. That's good news for Rubio. The best outcome for him is a campaign in which the issue is secondary.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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