The defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, amid charges he supports amnesty for undocumented workers, will stall immigration legislation this year and send Republicans into the 2016 presidential season at odds with one of the nation’s fastest-growing political constituencies.
Torn between a party base opposed to easing citizenship for illegal immigrants and their broader electoral imperative to win Hispanic voters, prospective presidential candidates yesterday were forced to choose their words carefully.
“We’ve been somewhat trapped by rhetoric and words, and amnesty is a word that’s trapped us,” said Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky on a conference call organized by Partnership for a New American Economy, a group supporting immigration legislation. “We’re trapped in this rhetoric and we have to get beyond that,” said Paul.
National Republican Party officials have concluded that passing legislation to change the immigration system is vital to improving their standing with Latino voters. President Barack Obama in 2012 beat Republican nominee Mitt Romney by 44 points among Latino voters, the widest gap in a decade.
Almost 28.2 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential race, an increase of about 17 percent, according to an analysis of census data by the Center for American Progress, a research group. Hispanic influence may be even greater in battleground states, such as Florida, where more will enter the voting pool than white voters.
“If the GOP does not correct course on the immigration issue and their Latino outreach, the Mitt Romney disaster of 2012 will be seen as the glory days,” said Matt Barreto, the co-founder of Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm based in Seattle. “They could very realistically sink to less than 20 percent of the Latino vote in 2014 and 2016 if they follow the path of anti-immigrant candidates.”
Obama, at a Democratic fundraiser in Weston, Massachusetts, last night, said he’ll stay after Republicans on the issue. “My argument about yesterday’s election is not that there was too little politics -- there was too little conviction about what was right,” he said.
For months, Republican House leaders fretted that an immigration debate earlier this year would make incumbents more vulnerable to primary challenges. With many of those intraparty contests behind them, immigration advocates on Capitol Hill were marking this summer as an opportunity to pass a bill.
Two weeks after the March Republican primaries in Texas, Representative Joe Barton said he’d introduce a bill that would give undocumented children a path to citizenship and make legalization possible for adults who hadn’t committed other crimes.
In April, a month after the Illinois primaries, a trio of House Republicans from that state -- Representatives Adam Kinzinger, Aaron Schock and John Shimkus -- expressed support for some form of legal status for undocumented immigrants.
That momentum came to a halt with Cantor’s June 10 primary loss, which happened despite careful positioning by the Virginia Republican on the issue.
Though he supported legislation to give legal status to certain undocumented children, Cantor blocked a vote on an amendment that would have done the same for those who joined the military.
That didn’t stop Republican opponent Dave Brat, a college professor and political newcomer, from accusing Cantor of being “100 percent all-in” on amnesty.
“This makes it harder to imagine how something gets done in the next few weeks,” said Tamar Jacoby, the Republican chief executive officer of ImmigrationWorks, a group advocating for immigration changes on behalf of small and mid-sized businesses.
“But we’re never going to see the inside of the White House unless we can win some of those swing states where Latino voters are so important,” she said.
House Republicans supportive of taking action on immigration predicted that Cantor’s defeat would prompt some of their colleagues to take a harder line on the issue.
“The Ted Cruz wing of the government wants to bring the government down, and I’m afraid we could be going in that direction,” Republican New York Representative Peter King said in a reference to the Tea-Party aligned Texas U.S. senator during a Bloomberg Television appearance. “There is a division in the party.”
A report commissioned by the Republican National Committee after Romney’s loss recommended that lawmakers embrace immigration changes or become a party whose appeal “continues to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
Approximately 11.2 million Latinos voted in the 2012 election, comprising 8.4 percent of the electorate, a 15 percent increase from 2008, according to data from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“Republicans are going to be shut out of the White House if they are not a more inclusive party,” said Ari Fleischer, a co-chair of party study committee. “Immigration is a vexing issue that needs to be addressed.”
Cantor’s loss has empowered anti-immigration activists, who have renewed faith in their ability to influence primaries in 2014 and beyond.
“This win has reverberated through Virginia and now across the country,” said former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, an opponent of easing legalization of undocumented workers. “It’s these same grassroots individuals that are going to control the 2016 nominations.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was a key player in Senate immigration legislation and is considered a potential 2016 candidate, backed off his push for a comprehensive bill after he saw his popularity drop among Republicans.
He said yesterday that Republicans must gain Hispanic support by presenting an agenda that appeals to those voters beyond just tackling immigration.
“Those votes have to be earned, on an agenda -- quite frankly -- that involves all sorts of other issues,” Rubio told reporters on Capitol Hill. “That will have a bigger impact on our success than simply passing some sort of immigration reform.”
In April, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, another prospective presidential contender, said some of the people who come to the U.S. illegally do so out of an “act of love” for their families and should be treated differently than those who overstay visas.
“We need to kind of get beyond the harsh political rhetoric,” Bush said at an event at his father’s library. “They come here because they want to provide for their families and they can make a contribution to our country if we actually organized ourselves in a better way.”
He faced a firestorm of criticism from conservatives.
Paul, who voted against the Senate immigration bill, has focused on reaching out to minority communities typically not aligned with Republicans. He has argued that Congress should move forward with a bill that adopts positions favored by Republicans on border security, citizenship and work visas.
“If you want immigration reform, there has to be openness to compromise,” Paul said today. “There still could be a pathway forward for immigration reform.”
White House Action
With action unlikely in Congress, emphasis in Washington will move to the White House, which can take executive actions to limit deportations -- and then use Republican opposition to legislation to hammer their opponents in the 2014 and 2016 campaigns.
“The Republicans sound schizophrenic on the issue because they’re constantly saying this is something we have to deal with, and they continue to not deal with it,” said Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Given their turmoil on this issue, they are falling short of being a national party.”
Hillary Clinton, who is weighing a Democratic presidential bid, jumped on the issue at an event promoting her new memoir in Chicago yesterday, saying Cantor “was defeated by a candidate who basically ran against immigrants.”
“The answer is not to throw out of work and deport the 11 million immigrants who are contributing already to our economy. The answer is to grow our economy,” she said.
“Every single Latino is one degree removed from immigration, and there’s absolutely no doubt in their minds that Republicans are to blame for immigration not passing,” said Gabriela Domenzain, who handled Hispanic outreach for Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. “The Republicans themselves have cast the contrast for the Democrats to use.”