New television ads from a pro-immigration reform group funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg make one thing very clear: The key to passing a comprehensive immigration reform package through the Senate has nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with providing conservative cover to those who are considering voting for it.
Immigration is mentioned a total of zero times in that ad. Instead, the ad is aimed at reinforcing one basic message: Lindsey Graham doesn't like President Obama. At all.
A clip of Graham calling the Obama health care law a "debacle" is shown. "If this is change we can believe in, count me out," Graham is shown saying in relation to Obama's stimulus plan. The ad ends with a narrator urging listeners to "call Senator Graham [and] tell him to keep fighting for South Carolina."
Here's why the ad is important. To get immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship through the Senate, groups like Zuckerberg's have to prove that voting for it won't be viewed as apostasy among the conservative community. (Remember that the 2007 immigration reform bill was done in by strong opposition from conservative talk radio.)
To do that, a case for the conservative bona fides of the likes of Graham (as well as other potential "yes" votes on the Senate Judiciary Committee including Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Jeff Flake of Arizona) has to be made over an extended period of time. And that case is entirely disconnected from the immigration issue.
What these ads aim to do is lay a foundation so that when their senator is weighing whether to vote for immigration reform, conservatives in the state will think to themselves: "I may not agree with him (or her) on this, but they stand up to Obama on lots of other things."
It's a smart strategy by Zuckerberg's group since the past few elections have given Senate Republicans plenty of reason to be afraid of opening up any room on their ideological right flank. Intraparty defeats for Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) as well as losses by establishment types like Trey Grayson in Kentucky in 2010 and David Dewhurst in Texas in 2012 have had a decidedly chilling effect on Senate Republicans' willingness to work across the aisle.
Will it work? Some of that depends on how aggressively the likes of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz go after the legislation as sanctioning amnesty.
What's clear: Immigration only has a chance for a big bipartisan coalition in the Senate if the vote isn't turned into a litmus test for Senate Republicans' commitment to core conservative principles.
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