As I mentioned recently, you only have to go back to 2012 to see the dangers Republican candidates face when they don’t adopt a hard-line stance on immigration. When then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry launched his 2012 campaign, he led every GOP primary poll for more than a month. Then he said opponents of giving children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition “don’t have a heart.” He never led after that. Time and again, Mitt Romney relied on immigration to attack rivals from the right, to much success.
The trouble for Walker is his path to the GOP nomination goes through the conservative base. His current rival for the top spot, Jeb Bush, isn’t counting on conservative voters; Bush’s base is the much more immigration-friendly Republican middle and establishment. Walker needs the right, and his chief weakness with the right is on immigration. And just saying again and again that he is against “amnesty” or against citizenship won’t be enough to assuage the far right’s suspicions, given his past (relatively) moderate stances on the issue.
Walker knows this: He is an expert at walking the fine line between tribalism and outright racism, quickly dumping aides who express racist sentiments while also using racially tinged issues such as welfare to whip up far-right anger. Look for him to start touting (either now or in future primary debates) his cuts to in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, to go hard after Bush on immigration and to start advocating the sorts of punitive measures that Romney suggested would make immigrants “self-deport.” Yes, it will be a change from his past stances, and yes, it will hurt him in the general election. But for Walker, the GOP nomination would be worth it.