Senator Ted Cruz of Texas wants to clamp down on illegal immigration, saying it’s a winning issue with many voters.
Some of his fellow Republicans fret that the party could end up losing big in Cruz’s home state.
Cruz and his allies want to roll back President Barack Obama’s November orders easing deportations. The U.S. House yesterday took the first step to undo Obama’s plan and to start sending home children the president protected in a 2012 order as well.
Lawmakers and strategists from both parties say the campaign could feed an anti-immigrant narrative even in Republican-leaning states including Texas with swelling populations of Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic.
“The Democrats are betting on Republicans shooting themselves in the foot,” said Hector Barajas, a Republican strategist. “Even for Hispanics who aren’t in fear of being deported, the big question is: ‘Why are they picking on us?’”
Barajas said the effort was reminiscent of former Republican California Governor Pete Wilson’s support two decades ago for a ballot initiative barring undocumented immigrants from using state-funded social services. The backlash among Hispanics has helped Democrats dominate the state for a generation.
“It could have some devastating effects for Republicans,” said Barajas, who advised Republican Meg Whitman in her losing 2010 gubernatorial campaign in California and says Democrats still use Wilson’s image in political advertising in that state.
Cruz, a 44-year-old freshman whose father was born in Cuba, rejects any suggestion that the campaign could backfire by electrifying Hispanic voters in states like Texas, which has been reliably Republican since the 1980s.
“The Democrats said that before November as well,” he said in an interview. “It proved correct: It did mobilize voters -- and we saw a historic tidal wave of an election that was a referendum on executive amnesty.”
Still, Texas’s demography -- 38 percent of the state is Hispanic -- illustrates the political risks for Republicans. Almost 3 million eligible Hispanic voters didn’t go to the polls in 2012, and both parties need their support.
Some Republican lawmakers say that angering those voters could upend the electoral map. The concern is that Cruz, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and his backers -- who tried last year to defund part of the government to stop Obama’s orders -- will drown out the voices of party members who want broad immigration changes.
“More responsible voices need to speak up and try to frame that debate rather than just surrender the field to the shrillest and most obnoxious,” said Texas’s other U.S. senator, John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber. “It’s not representative of the party,” he said referring to some of Cruz’s House allies.
The Republican split will be apparent as the Senate considers whether to take up the immigration measure passed by the House. Senate Republican leaders may decide not to push the same votes rolling back Obama’s orders amid opposition from both sides of the aisle, said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican.
While no one says that Texas, the second-most-populous state, will break for Democrats as quickly as California did after 1994, the immigration debate has the potential to lay the groundwork for future success.
The Latino Victory Project recently brought together grassroots activists for a gathering in Arizona to mark the 20th anniversary of California’s Proposition 187. The group is working to disseminate information about Obama’s orders through phone calls, social media and Spanish-language television.
It also has an ad campaign ready to go for “the right moment” when Republicans ramp up their rhetoric, said Cristobal Alex, the group’s president.
Texas “is the biggest prize,” he said. The demographic growth, coupled with Republican attacks on immigration, “is the perfect recipe for building political power,” he said.
“We’ve been looking carefully at the Prop 187 springboard effect,” Alex said. “It changed California politics forever.”
Republican leaders, eager to prevent that from happening in other states, aren’t well-positioned to contain members like Cruz.
After 2010, many Republican-run state legislatures redrew congressional districts, making them less racially diverse. That puts less pressure on many Republicans to go along with their national party’s goal of reaching out to Hispanics.
Even as House Speaker John Boehner allowed the vote this week on a sweeping rollback of Obama’s orders, his staff has been working to convince individual members they need to engage more of these voters.
Boehner squeezed through an annual spending bill late last year by promising to use his newly expanded majority to retaliate against Obama’s orders. Cruz will hold Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to that.
Republican congressional leaders leery of an intraparty battle are offering small-government Tea Party lawmakers a largely symbolic vote because Obama would veto it.
Cruz and Republicans including Representative Steve King of Iowa -- who once characterized most undocumented immigrants as drug runners with calves the size of cantaloupes -- say they see through this strategy. It is, they say, an effort to mollify them before proceeding to pro-immigration priorities like expanding high-skilled worker visas.
Republicans will try to attach a rollback of Obama’s orders to any legislation that moves through Congress, keeping the issue alive, said Representative Louie Gohmert, an outspoken critic of undocumented immigration.
“If we’re not able to stop the president’s amnesty, we can’t possibly move on to anything else,” said Gohmert, who has represented his northeast Texas district for a decade.
It will be no simple task for Democrats to capitalize on the immigration issue in Texas.
Unlike California 20 years ago, Texas has little of the infrastructure to organize Democratic voters, including strong labor unions. And there are leading Republicans from the state - - including former President George W. Bush and departing Governor Rick Perry -- who have taken softer stances on immigration. In California, Wilson was the dominant voice, making him an easier target for Democrats.
Getting Hispanics to participate in elections is another challenge: Texas has a lower Hispanic voter-turnout rate -- 39 percent -- compared with the 48 percent national average. And Democrats have a narrower advantage in the socially conservative state than in others. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is replacing Perry as governor, took 44 percent of the Hispanic vote when he was elected in November. That compares with the 27 percent that Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney carried nationally in 2012.
Cruz himself says he got 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2012 election.
“I was unambiguously opposed to amnesty,” he said. “There is a lot of bipartisan agreement among Texans on immigration,” specifically “that we’ve got to get serious about border security,” Cruz said.
Texas is “a higher mountain to climb,” said Frank Sharry, who heads America’s Voice, a pro-immigration policy group. “It’s inevitable, but I’m less optimistic about the short-term timeframes that people predict.”
Still, the potential for Democrats in Texas is vast.
Hispanics represented 28 percent of all eligible Texas voters in 2012. Their share of the electorate will grow to 31 percent by 2016, according to the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy group aligned with Democrats.
A November 2014 poll by Latino Decisions showed that 51 percent of Hispanics consider themselves Democrats, while 18 percent identify as Republicans and 17 percent as independents.
“Is the potential there for Texas to go purple?” said Patrick Oakford, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. “Absolutely, it’s just a question of getting people out to the polls.”
As in California in the 1990s, much of the Texas Hispanic population is young and has yet to solidify its party preferences.
“You’ve got a lot of those people who are now the middle class of America and still remember that Proposition 187,” Barajas said. “A lot of them are Democrats and a lot of them are Democrats because of Pete Wilson.”