Republicans Have Little Incentive To Move Forward On Immigration Reform
Despite conventional wisdom, there remains little incentive for the GOP to change its position on immigration reform.
The New York Times repeats an argument that has been made several times since the 2012 by Republicans and Democrats alike, and even more so over the past year as Republicans in Congress have blocked any effort to pass immigration reform, namely that the GOP is harming itself with its current position on an issue that appeals to growing segment of the electorate and that the party’s fortunes depend on changing course:
WASHINGTON — New Hampshire has one of the smallest populations of illegal immigrants in the country. Only about 5 percent of its 1.3 million residents are foreign-born, and 3 percent are Hispanic.
But tune into the Senate race between Scott P. Brown, the Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic incumbent, and you might think the state shares a border with Mexico, not Canada.
When someone called a talk radio show to ask Mr. Brown about global warming the other day, Mr. Brown immediately started talking about border security. “Let me tell you what I believe is a clear and present danger right now,” he said, brushing aside the caller’s concerns about the environment. “I believe that our border is porous.”
Footage of agents patrolling the rocky, arid Southwestern landscape is featured in Mr. Brown’s ads — not quite the piney highlands of New Hampshire.
A political group led by prominent conservatives like John R. Bolton, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations, attacked Ms. Shaheen last week with a video that juxtaposed two alarming images: a horde of people rushing a fence, presumably along the Mexican border, and a clip of Islamic militants right before they beheaded the journalist James Foley, a New Hampshire native. The ad was pulled after the Foley family complained.
Republicans have long relied on illegal immigration to rally the conservative base, even if the threat seemed more theoretical than tangible in most of the country. But in several of this year’s midterm Senate campaigns — including Arkansas and Kansas, as well as New Hampshire — Republicans’ stance on immigration is posing difficult questions about what the party wants to be in the longer term.
Some Republicans are questioning the cost of their focus on immigration. Campaigning on possible threats from undocumented immigrants — similar to claims that President Obama and the Democrats have left the country vulnerable to attacks from Islamic terrorists and the Ebola virus — may backfire after November. At that point, the party will have to start worrying about its appeal beyond the conservative voters it needs to turn out in midterm elections.
“You should never underestimate the ability of the Republicans to screw something up and blow an ideal opportunity,” said Ralph Reed, an influential conservative who has battled with hard-line Republicans to take a more charitable view on immigration.
“There is a sense in which, I think, the overwhelming desire to gain control of the Senate has kind of so fixated the party’s strategic brain trust that trying to get a hearing on long-term strategic issues doesn’t seem to be possible at the moment,” he said.
Still, immigration could be important to voters in states that do not have significant immigrant populations, and that seems to be the calculation of the campaign of Mr. Brown and others.
Much of the harsh talk on immigration today may have to do with simple math. In the states that Republicans need to win to retake the Senate, Hispanics are a sliver of the electorate. Nationally, they make up 11 percent of eligible voters. But in the eight states with close Senate races, fewer than 5 percent of eligible voters are Latino, according to a new Pew Research report.
Colorado is the only state with a competitive Senate race where Hispanics make up a significant share of the electorate — 14 percent. As a result, Republicans there have steered clear of making immigration policy an issue. Faced with polling that showed immigration could help Representative Cory Gardner, the Republican Senate nominee, strategists there still decided not to focus on it.
This strategy, of course, runs counter to the arguments that pundits have made ever since Mitt Romney lost the 2012 Presidential election and received just 27% of the Latino vote, less than the 31% that John McCain had received four years earlier, and far less than the 44% that George W. Bush had garnered in 2004. By and large, analysts ascribed this steep drop in Latino support for Republicans to the fact that the party’s support for immigration reform, which had reached its apex during Bush’s second term when the President, McCain, and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham were among the most prominent voices behind a comprehensive immigration reform proposal that likely would have been adopted but for the opposition of hard-line conservatives who went to war against all three and ended up having enough clout in Congress to bring the entire effort to enact the first real immigration reform plan in twenty years crashing down. In its wake, the Republican Party has come to adopt more and more the rhetoric and the policies of the wing of its party that helped bring about that defeat. At the state level, Republican politicians in states such as Georgia, Alabama, and Arizona adopted controversial immigration laws that, especially in the case of Georgia and Alabama, ended up having exceedingly negative consequences. At the national level, most Republican members of the Senate opposed any effort to enact immigration reform and Marco Rubio saw his star fall among the Tea Party crowd for his decision to back the bill that was ultimately passed. That bill has languished in the House, however, and seems destined to die at the end of the Congressional term notwithstanding the support of groups like the Chamber of Commerce for some kind of reform and at least some signals from House leadership that they would like to see a bill make it through the House on this issue. Beyond the legislative action and inaction, though, the GOP has largely adopted the rhetoric of the hard right on immigration, denouncing anything that resembles legal relief for undocumented workers and repeating mantras about “border security” that, when you examine them in detail, are rather meaningless and pointless.
All of this has led many Republicans, from Rubio and Jeb Bush to the Chamber of Commerce and other members of the business community and even the GOP’s own post-2012 audit, to argue that the party needs to reconsider its position on immigration issues or otherwise doom itself to electoral disaster in the future, especially at the Presidential level, thanks to the rising importance of the Latino vote in a large number of states across the country. As Nate Cohn notes, though, the actual pressure on Republicans to reconsider their positions on immigration are far less immediate than they might seem:
There’s a simple reason that congressional Republicans are willing to risk alienating Hispanics: They don’t need their votes, at least not this year.
Republicans would probably hold the House — and still have a real chance to retake the Senate — if they lost every single Hispanic voter in the country, according to an analysis by The Upshot.
Such a thing would never happen, of course, but the fact that the Republicans may not need a single Hispanic vote in 2014 says a good deal about American politics today.
The fact that the Republican House majority does not depend on Hispanic voters helps explain why immigration reform has not become law, even though national Republican strategists believe the party needs additional support among Hispanic voters to compete in presidential elections. It’s true that Republicans would stand little, if any, chance of winning the presidency in 2016 if they lost every Hispanic voter. If anything, the Republicans probably need to make gains among Hispanic voters to compete in states like Florida and Nevada.
But Congressional elections are different. Although the young, urban and racially diverse Democratic coalition has won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, that coalition has not delivered House control to the Democrats. Gerrymandering isn’t the only cause, either. It’s the way the population is distributed.
Even a situation in which every Latino voter in America chose the Democratic candidate would mainly allow Democrats to fare better in the heavily Hispanic districts where the party already wins.
In reality, the Republicans will win millions of Hispanic votes this November. But the House Republican majority does not depend on those votes. Indeed, it could even withstand losses far beyond reason.
To win the White House in 2016 or any future year, the Republicans will need a substantial number of Hispanic votes. But the fact that the party doesn’t need many of those votes to hold the House makes the Republican effort to appeal to Hispanic voters far more challenging. The Republican Congress has few, if any, immediate incentives to reach a compromise on immigration reform or otherwise reach out to Hispanics.
For individual Republicans in Congress, supporting such measure would verge on the irrational. It would leave them vulnerable to primary challenges and offer little or no benefit in the general election.
In a nutshell, that largely explains why the House has not acted at all on immigration reform. Politically, there is very little incentive for individual members to stick their necks out on the line on the issue to begin with, and at least during primary season there are strong disincentives to do so in the form of potential primary challenges from the right that would have the backing of strong national forces behind them. To at least some degree, that is part of what played into the defeat of Eric Cantor in the Republican Primary earlier this year because there was at least the perception that, as part of the leadership, he was willing to compromise on the issue or even bring the full Senate bill to the floor for a vote, where it would likely have passed with the support of most Democrats and a small number of Republicans. The fact that Cantor has spoken sparingly in public on the issue didn’t matter as much the perception that he would stray on the issue if re-elected. Other Republicans running for re-election this year faced the same political calculus as Cantor did, and they will again in the future, which, along with the simple fact that House Republicans don’t trust the President to implement whatever they might pass without improvising via Executive Order, is the reason why we didn’t see any immigration reform before the election, why we’re not likely to see it in the Lame Duck session, and why it’s also exceedingly unlikely in the two year period prior to the 2016 elections. Indeed, any candidate running for the Republican nomination is going to face the same incentives from the base that Members of Congress do on this issue, which is why a candidate like Jeb Bush would face a hard road notwithstanding the fact that he would likely be backed by the party’s big money donors.
Even at the Presidential level, the pressures on the GOP to act on immigration seem to be far less than what many, myself included, have anticipated. It’s true, for example, that teh Latino voting age population is growing, but that’s only part of the equation. To be sure, Latino voters turned out in record numbers in 2012, but they still only amounted to ten percent of the total electorate, in no small part because overall voter turnout among this group continues to lag that of the general population. That could change if, for example, there were a Latino politician on a national ticket in 2016 or beyond, but it does show that Latino voting power is not as strong as the demographic trends might make it seem. Additionally, as Philip Bump and Francis Wilkerson argue, 2014 is likely to cement the GOP lock on the white vote, and as that population ages they become more likely to turn out to vote, and to vote Republican. In the short term, then, the incentives for Republicans to worry about appealing to Latino and other minorities Eventually, of course, demographic trends will catch up with electoral reality, but Bump and Wilkerson both make convincing cases that this may be much further off than conventional wisdom might lead one to believe. If their analysis is correct, then incentives for the GOP to listen to the anti-reform elements in their base will continue to be stronger than the incentive to promote immigration reform in an effort to appeal to Latino and other voters. If that’s the case, then the prospects for immigration reform in the short term would appear to be quite bleak.