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The GOP’s big immigration conundrum, in nine easy steps

What's best for the whole is not always what's best for the sum of its parts. Just ask the Republican Party about immigration.

Demonstrators march against amnesty for immigrants in the U.S. illegally during a July 2013 rally against an immigration reform bill in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana/Reuters)

Coming off a dismal performance among Hispanic voters in 2012, many party strategists are hoping that the GOP will shift its posture and fully embrace a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. Their hope is to begin to repair a sullied image among an increasingly powerful share of the electorate that has lined up firmly behind the Democratic Party. And to do it before the 2016 presidential election.

The problem for the GOP? That's a tough ask for most Republicans in the House, which is currently the center of the immigration debate. For many rank-and-file members, there is no political upside to embracing a path to citizenship.

Nine numbers from the new Washington Post-ABC News poll tell the story.

Eighty-five percent of Hispanics say undocumented immigrants currently in the United States should be given the right to live and work here, according to the survey. And about half (52 percent) say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate for Congress who supports a path to citizenship for them. Just 11 percent say they would be more likely to oppose such a candidate.  The 11-point error margin for the the poll’s sample of 97 Hispanics warrants caution, though overall opinion clearly is lopsided.

But among Republicans, we see a very different picture. Only 33 percent say undocumented immigrants should be given the right to live and work in the country. Nearly twice as many (65 percent) say they should not. Among conservatives, the numbers (34 percent/63 percent) are nearly identical.

The potential impact at the ballot box should be even more troubling for House Republicans. Forty-five percent of Republicans say that backing a path to citizenship would make them less likely to vote for a candidate. Just 17 percent say it would make them more likely. Among conservatives, the numbers once again look very similar.

Here's why it matters so much: The majority of House Republicans reside in safely conservative districts where the biggest electoral threat they face is the GOP primary. And it's Republicans and conservative voters who are casting ballots in such primaries — the same Republicans and conservatives who've demonstrated little appetite for a path to citizenship.

As The Washington Post's David Nakamura reported last week, House GOP leaders have signaled that they will pursue their own immigration reform plan, even as the Senate last year passed a sweeping bill that includes a path to citizenship. The goals of the House plan are expected to address a path toward legal status. But the big question is what specifically that path will look like and whether enough Republicans can support it.

Introducing the plan after the filing period has passed in most states could help rally support for immigration reform. Still, the next House election after this one is in 2016. And some Republicans could be wary of attracting a conservative challenger next time around.

President Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic voters in 2012, increasing the his share of the vote from 2008. Hispanics also made up a larger share of the electorate. This is why it's so critical for Republicans to rehabilitate their image broadly, in the minds of many GOP strategists.

But at the level of House elections, the overarching concerns are very different. The Cook Report's Amy Walter looked last year at all of the House Republicans who represent districts where the Hispanic share of the population is 25 percent or greater. There are only two dozen such districts. And of the two dozen, 15 were carried by Mitt Romney by double digits — meaning they are very conservative areas.

Immigration is the biggest legislative question mark of 2014. Leaders in both parties haven't given up hope of getting something done. Of course, that doesn't mean that something will.

And if doesn't, one of the major reasons why could be the lack of political imperative to act from the party with, well, a major political imperative to act.

Scott Clement contributed to this post.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.



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