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A New GOP Begins, and Ends, With Immigration Reform

After President Obama’s historic performance among Hispanic voters helped him win reelection, establishment Republicans suddenly came around on immigration reform. The case for doing so is clearer than any other proposed post-election change in the GOP platform, but it won't be easy. Obama has immigration-reform plans of his own, and a debate on the issue will likely divide House Republicans for the second time this year, preventing the party from reaping the electoral benefits of embracing reform. And if the House actually blocks reform, it’s doubtful that Republicans will make any progress in rebranding the party before the 2016 primaries.

The political imperative here is evident: Opposition to immigration reform has hurt Republicans among Latino voters, and although a 180-degree switch on the issue might not yield immediate gains among Hispanics, it's an essential starting point. As Latinos become a larger share of the voting-eligible population, Republicans must make gains among Hispanics to hold their ground, let alone reverse the incipient but relatively narrow Democratic advantage in presidential elections. The conservative stance on immigration reform doesn’t stem from moral beliefs (like opposing gay marriage) or a philosophical commitment to limited government (like supporting tax cuts for the wealthy). Reform is an issue even the Chamber of Commerce wing of the party can get behind, making it an easy first choice for Republicans who want to revive the party’s brand without abandoning core principles: For a true conservative, the alternatives are worse.

It's assumed that Republican voters oppose a pathway to citizenship, but the polling is mixed. A recent Politico/Battleground poll showed 49 percent of Republicans supporting a pathway to citizenship, while the exit polls found 51 percent of Republicans preferring a pathway to citizenship when pitted against deportation. On the other hand, an ABC/Washington Post survey showed that just 37 percent of Republicans supported a pathway to citizenship, with 60 percent opposed. Similarly, Quinnipiac found just 41 percent of Republicans in favor of allowing undocumented workers to become citizens. Republican primary voters might be even less supportive of a pathway to citizenship, but the numbers aren’t especially intimidating—and every survey shows comprehensive immigration reform pushing or exceeding 60 percent support.

And yet, even this will be difficult to push through the House of Representatives. The GOP House caucus almost unanimously opposes a pathway to citizenship, and the political incentives forcing Republican leaders and presidential hopefuls to rethink immigration reform have little consequence for conservatives ensconced in white, safely Republican districts. After all, every House Republican won reelection despite historic Latino turnout in support of Democratic candidates, and more than 85 percent of House Republicans won by more than 10 points. Perhaps as few as seven Republicans hail from districts carried by Obama where Latino voters constitute an above-average share of the voting-eligible population. Republicans who won reelection in spite of Latino turnout will probably be able to weather it again in 2014, when Latinos will represent a smaller share of the electorate. According to Current Population Survey data, Latino turnout rates declined from 49.9 percent to 31.2 percent between 2008 and 2010—37 percent decline. The white share of the electorate grew, since white voter turnout only fell from 66.1 percent to 48.6 percent—a far smaller 26 percent decline.

Given that nearly two-thirds of House Republicans opposed the McConnell-Biden "fiscal cliff" deal, it's possible that a pathway to citizenship will meet similar opposition—especially without the looming threat of something like across-the-board tax increases. Even if House Republicans ultimately assent to the president’s planned proposal for a pathway to citizenship, the cumbersome process of getting conservatives on board might lead the GOP into a final act of alienating Hispanics. It is difficult to envision Republicans getting credit for the enactment of comprehensive immigration reform if a vociferous wing of the party drags its feet or employs the alienating language that characterized prior immigration debates. Even if it caves on substance, the GOP might be out-flanked by process: The New York Times reports that the president plans to offer a comprehensive package, but conservatives prefer a piecemeal, multi-bill process. If conservatives argue for a piecemeal approach, Democrats will accuse them of attempting to derail the process. And if Marco Rubio proposes a middle ground on a pathway to citizenship, Democrats are well-positioned to insist on their approach, since Hispanics would probably blame the failure of immigration reform on Republicans.

Republicans are now at a disadvantage in national elections, and most thoughtful conservatives recognize that the party will need to adjust its platform to appeal to a more diverse electorate and compensate for generational change. The upcoming fight over immigration reform is the first test of whether Republicans can turn their recognition of the need for change into a substantive shift in policy. The House Republican caucus won't drive changes in the Republican Party, but it holds a veto over most efforts to reposition the party. If they insist on adhering to conservative orthodoxy on immigration, Republicans probably won't be able to shift the party's platform between now and 2016. And three more years of House Republicans adhering to the conservative orthodoxy would make GOP primary voters less likely to support a different type of Republican.