A month after voting for an immigration bill that many House Republicans see as political poison, three Senate Republicans are heading into 2014 re-election campaigns with few signs of damage -- so far.
Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee voted June 27 with Democrats and 11 Republicans for a broad immigration measure that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, authorize new visas for guest workers and beef up U.S. border security.
Their experience may inform House Republicans concerned that supporting a new immigration policy will give ammunition to Tea Party-fueled primary challengers, says Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
“These Republicans are starting to fear their own shadow,” Duffy said. “If Republicans could actually do it right and have enough border security in there, it might be fine.”
While it’s early in the campaign season, immigration could become a flash point as lawmakers leave Washington for a five-week recess set to begin tomorrow. That worries those fighting for changes in U.S. immigration law because it makes it harder to advance legislation through the House.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has already drawn a Tea Party challenge from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, with activists irate in part over his inability to block the Senate’s immigration bill, which passed 68 to 32. Tea Party members in South Carolina and Tennessee are still shopping for a strong candidate, and Lee Bright, a South Carolina state senator, may soon announce his candidacy. Nancy Mace, the first female graduate of The Citadel, plans to announce her primary run against Graham on Saturday, Goose Creek Patch reported today.
“There are people gearing up to challenge them,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes the Senate bill. “This is a very clear warning it’s something the constituents are not going to be pleased with.”
Senators are amassing financial backing to defend their seats. Graham has raised $5.6 million and Alexander has brought in $3.6 million for the 2014 campaign, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that analyzes campaign contributions.
Challengers to incumbents in the Republican-led House, by contrast, can succeed with far less money, and districts have been redrawn in ways that encourage intra-party challenges.
“Many of these Republican members of Congress are telling people ‘I’m afraid of being primaried,’” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has long backed revising the law, said at a Bloomberg Government luncheon July 29. “A lot of these members would like to see a way through this.”
In Tennessee, anti-tax Tea Party activists see more pressing grievances with Alexander. The senator voted 62 percent of the time with President Barack Obama, including support for a bipartisan budget deal last December that included a tax increase and stopgap bills to keep the government funded, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Ben Cunningham, Nashville Tea Party president, says the main issue motivating allies in Tennessee is “the growth and size and burden and intrusiveness of the federal government.”
Last October, local Tea Party activists met with national groups including FreedomWorks that could provide funding for a primary challenge to Alexander. “There are a number of outside groups that would very much like to help if we can get a viable candidate,” Cunningham said. Still, there are “no real alternatives at this point,” he said, while mentioning Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett as one possibility.
Every member of the congressional delegation and all the former state Republican chairmen have endorsed Alexander, he said. “He’s going to be tough to beat,” he said. “He’s got all the establishment money, all the lobbyists’ money.”
Phil Roe, a Republican congressman from Tennessee, rejects McCain’s view that Tea Party concerns are hindering legislation.
“I certainly don’t feel threatened by the Tea Party,” Roe, whose district voted 73 percent for Republican Mitt Romney over Obama last year, said in an interview. “You got to be comfortable in your overalls. If you’re positive and comfortable in your position, you should be fine.”
In South Carolina, Graham’s role in the immigration debate was a liability in 2008, said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University. In 2014, he said, it’s unlikely to pose much of a threat.
In addition to Graham’s efforts to repair fences with voters, the electorate’s attitudes on immigration have changed “dramatically” in South Carolina from 2010 to now, said Woodard, who conducts state- and district-level polling.
“He’s pretty safe,” said Woodard, a consultant who’s advised Graham and former Republican Senator Jim DeMint.
“The re-election of Barack Obama jarred” Republican voters in South Carolina, Woodard said. Obama won 71 percent of the national Hispanic vote last year. “They’ve realized you can’t take that position on immigration and survive.”
Tea Party groups want a challenger to Graham, said Debbie Jones, a board member for Charleston 912, a group that touts constitutional government. Even so, she said she isn’t sure any of the potential challengers, including Bright, is “strong enough to take down Graham.”
Graham’s post-vote experience should give solace to fellow Republicans in the state such as Representative Trey Gowdy, who was elected with strong Tea Party backing, Woodard said.
“They could take a vote on the immigration bill without fear of losing,” he said. “Somebody like Trey Gowdy now has enough chits with the electorate he would be forgiven.”
Gowdy said in a Bloomberg Television interview last month that the current immigration system is “broken” and expressed optimism that the House would pass a plan.
Representative Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican, agreed that immigration is no longer a “hot button” issue in the state. “There’s a general sense that you can’t continue like we are right now,” he said. Even so, “that’s a far cry from supporting the Senate bill.”
Gowdy won his 2012 election by 31 percentage points with no primary opposition. Most of his Republican colleagues in the state also ran unopposed, including Jeff Duncan and Mulvaney.
For Collins, whose state has strong Democratic leanings, supporting the immigration measure “isn’t going to cost her one iota,” said Mark Brewer, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine.
The Tea Party in Maine is more focused on the size of government, taxation, constitutional issues and even same-sex marriage, said Brewer. “I suppose there’s a small wing or sliver within the Tea Party movement for whom immigration is the rub,” he said, “but it’s a real small part.”
The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan Washington newsletter, rates Alexander and Graham as “safe” in their re-election bids and Collins as “Republican favored.”
Some Republicans are preparing to support lawmakers willing to back new immigration laws.
Charlie Spies, a former adviser to Romney, who said during his presidential campaign that immigrants in the U.S. illegally should “self-deport,” co-founded a super-political action committee called Republicans for Immigration Reform.
The group ran ads in support of Graham when he came under attack from anti-immigration groups before the Senate’s vote. It is joining unions and business coalitions planning to pressure more than 100 House Republicans during the recess.
“When Republicans are attacked for supporting immigration reform, we’re going to be there to provide support for them,” Spies said. He said his group’s polling shows as many as 70 percent of Republican primary voters are more likely to vote for a Republican who supports the Senate bill when words like “amnesty” aren’t used to describe it.
Still, the issue could bedevil Republican incumbents if the party’s leaders in the House accept a path to citizenship during negotiations with the Senate over final legislation, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
“That could change the landscape,” he said.
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