The GOP Walks A Border Tightrope

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Karl Rove must be seeing Pete Wilson in his nightmares.

President Bush's architect has been laboring to build up the GOP among Hispanic voters, and he's been succeeding: Bush won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, double the level attained by Bob Dole eight years earlier. Some of that is attributable to Hispanic voters' particular affinity for Bush, a former border state governor. But the change has been marked enough to make some smart Democrats fear they're at risk of losing their hold on a large and fast-growing slice of voters.

Now, though, with thousands demonstrating against a House-passed immigration bill that is all crackdown and no mercy, Rove's project is imperiled. The GOP -- riven between an enforcement-only approach and Bush's kinder, gentler immigration reform -- is risking a national repeat of Wilson's experience as governor of California over a decade ago.

Wilson pushed for Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative to deny state services to illegal immigrants, and won -- with disastrous results for the California GOP. Hispanic turnout in the next election surged, and the GOP's share of the Hispanic vote fell, from 31 percent between 1988 and 1994 to 23 percent from 1996 through 2000.

The current immigration debate, said Leslie Sanchez, who advises Republicans on Hispanic issues, "is Prop. 187 on steroids. It's real easy for a lot of my fellow Republican pollsters to say, 'This is red meat for conservatives, let's go out and pound this issue.' The deeper ramifications are that it turns off women and other ethnic minorities and turns on Hispanics, who are now mobilized against us."

Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie invokes as well the more recent experience of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore, who ran anti-immigration ads and lost. "Anti-immigration rhetoric is a political siren's song, and Republicans must resist its lure . . . or our majority will crash on its shoals," he told the Federalist Society last week.

The difficulty for Republicans, though, is that their short-term political interests -- winning in November -- are arguably at odds with their long-term viability as a majority party. Their base is demoralized about the party's performance and riled up about immigration. Pushing for tough restrictions and resisting anything that has the whiff of leniency toward those who entered the country illegally may be the best way for Republicans to get their voters to the polls in November. And the recent protests, as unnerving as they are for Rove's dream of a GOP-inclined Hispanic electorate, also have the perverse effect of further enraging those already inflamed about immigration.

"White suburban voters who voted for George Bush are disaffected now," says Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "Would I rather be talking about immigration reform with these voters or the war? Immigration reform or gasoline prices? Sometimes, in order to avoid or avert the tidal wave, you have to do things that short-term make a little more sense than they do in the long term."

Public polls bear out Fabrizio's assessment. A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found that 71 percent of voters said they would be more likely to favor a candidate who supports tighter controls on immigration; just 11 percent said that would tilt them to oppose. The percentage of voters who said the government was not doing enough to secure the nation's borders has gone from 54 percent in November 2001 to 78 percent, according to a Fox News poll.

And voters, especially Republicans, are hostile to proposals to ease the legal path for those in the country illegally. A February poll by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute showed 62 percent (71 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats) opposed to making it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens. A narrower majority, 54 percent (59 percent of Republicans, 52 percent of Democrats) opposed making it easier for illegal immigrants to work here. Some strategists argue that voters would support stepped-up enforcement plus reform, but that may contain more than a dollop of wishful thinking: Fueled by the kerosene of talk radio and cable news, this is not exactly a nuanced debate.

But if Republicans are about to hand Democrats a gift on immigration, Democrats have been treating the issue more like a hot potato. Spooked that immigration may become a GOP base-energizing issue, much like gay marriage in 2004, they are torn between trying to protect themselves against charges that they are soft on the issue and trying to seize the opportunity to attract Hispanic voters.

An illustration of that ambivalence came with the House vote in December in which 36 Democrats, including all the vulnerable incumbents, voted for the House bill. Much as with Democrats' self-imposed silence on the Bush tax cuts during the 2002 campaign, it's a bit hard to capitalize on an anti-immigration vote backed by some of your own troops.

And indeed, Democrats aren't doing much in the way of capitalizing. A New American Media poll of legal immigrants, released yesterday, found that while only 22 percent said the Republican Party was doing a good job on immigration, the approval rating for the Democrats wasn't all that impressive either: 38 percent. "There's anger out there" among immigrants, says Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen, who conducted the survey. "But there's also a feeling that the Democrats are not much better."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company