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Will immigration reform be the core GOP divide in 2016?

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on a new push from conservative activists and donors to give cover to pro-immigration reform Republicans like Florida Senator Marco Rubio. The American Action Network, led by former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman, is running ads in Florida thanking Rubio for “keeping his promise, and fighting to secure the border,” while Americans for a Conservative Direction—led by former Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi—has been running ads in Iowa that implore those watching to “stand with Marco Rubio to end de facto amnesty.”

That ads are running in Iowa says at least one thing about the current Republican landscape (besides Rubio’s likely run for the White House): If there is anything that’s clear from the last six months of GOP fighting, arguing and dealing over comprehensive immigration reform, it’s that this bill will loom large in the 2016 Republican primaries, regardless of its fate in Congress.

But it’s not a matter of “establishment” Republicans running afoul of the GOP base. Since the 2010 term midterm elections, the divide between the “base” of the Republican Party and its elites has dwindled. Yes, some lawmakers are closer to the party’s core voters than others — hence the dynamic between House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor — but, on the whole, Republican elites have adopted the priorities and policies of GOP voters. Stylistically, there’s a difference between Paul Ryan and Jim DeMint, but their policy and ideological commitments are almost identical.

Since the base of the Republican Party is closely tied to its establishment, this is really a divide between two different sets of elites, both drawing from a similar set of voters, but each having a different view of what the GOP needs to win elections for the next decade, or longer. On one end you have Republicans like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and the Heritage Foundation’s Jim DeMint, whose opposition to comprehensive immigration reform is rooted in “limited government” — we don’t want new low-income residents who may use social services — and a belief, best articulated by Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics, that the GOP doesn’t need Latino voters to win the White House in 2016, or maintain its House majority. Instead, it can boost its vote share by increasing turnout among working and middle-class white voters, who tend to favor Republicans by double-digit margins. This strategy depends on several things going right for the GOP — lower African American turnout, lower Hispanic immigration to the country and migration within — but it’s not outlandish.

On the other end, of course, you have Republicans like Marco Rubio, House budget committee chairman (and former vice presidential candidate) Paul Ryan and South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, who are convinced that the GOP needs a foothold with Latino voters to remain a competitive party. It’s that, and a commitment to supporting business interests with a steady supply of low-wage labor, that drives their support for comprehensive immigration reform. And as with the other side, there’s plenty of data (I’d say a little more) to support their position as well.

If immigration reform becomes law, these camps won’t go away. Instead, for many conservatives, the legislation is likely to join Obamacare as another instance of Washington’s betrayal, and as a rallying cry for change. At least one set of candidates in 2016 will run on an explicit promise to repeal the immigration bill, or at least reform it with a massive investment in border security, regardless of actual conditions. And if it fails, you’ll have one set of candidates running on a promise to advance and pass a new bill, and another running on a pledge to keep reform in the ground. Both will draw from support within the grassroots of the Republican Party, and at this point, it’s hard to say who has the upper hand.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.