Hillary Clinton's Immigration Stance May Haunt Republicans Until Election Day

The fast-growing sector of the electorate is receiving a lot of early attention in the presidential race.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 29: Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton waited backstage before taking the stage during the David Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University in Manhattan, NY April 29, 2015.

Photographer: Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

The fight for the Hispanic vote is on. 

Amid concern that probable Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush is attempting to court Hispanic voters away from the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton staked her claim to that increasingly important electorate by restating her support for easing immigration laws and saying she'd go beyond President Obama's controversial executive orders to protect certain undocumented workers from deportation.

Clinton's move on Tuesday to not just make immigration reform a central issue so early in her presidential campaign but to also appeal directly to immigration activists is a reminder of how crucial the Hispanic vote has been for Democrats, and highlights the long road Republicans have with that voting bloc, even if they pick Bush as their nominee.

“She made this a defining issue in the election and there is a very clear contrast that she drew yesterday with the Republicans,” Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, said Wednesday on CNBC.

Bush, a former Florida governor, is far from a sure bet for to win his party's primary. 1 Bush maintains that he isn't a candidate. His team has interpreted campaign finance laws in such a way that that lets him collect donations of unlimited amounts as long as he makes clear that he's only "seriously considering the possibility" of becoming a candidate. Presidential candidates are subject to contribution limits of $2,700 per election. Two groups have filed a formal complaint against Bush and several other Republicans with the Federal Elections Commission that disputes this interpretation.  Thanks in part to his support for easing immigration laws, which sets him apart from most of the GOP field, Bush has been written off by a large share of potential primary voters, a Bloomberg Politics national poll last month showed. Bush has acknowledged the political risks of his immigration position, and suggested that he's willing to “lose the primary to win the general.”

But if Bush survives the wide-open field, he'll be in a position to compete with the Democratic nominee for support from Hispanic voters, who have helped Democrats win the popular vote in five of the last six presidential races. Many immigration advocates—along with the Republican National Committee—believe the Republicans can only stem the declining support among Latino voters once candidates "embrace and champion" immigration reform.

"Jeb Bush is the only Republican candidate who could be competitive for Latino votes," Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that advocates for changes to U.S. immigration policy, said in an interview. "But that 'R' next to his name is going to be really hard to overcome."

Also on Bloomberg Politics: The Definitive Hillary Clinton Scouting Report, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

Bush supports a path to citizenship or legal status for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., which is a deal-breaker for many Republican voters. He's attempted to frame his position in economic terms, saying that to spark growth the country needs to add more workers. And while he's criticized Obama's executive orders on immigration as going beyond the constitutional powers of the office, Bush has refused to say whether he'd repeal those actions without Congress approving an overhaul of immigration laws.

On Thursday, Clinton exceeded expectations for many immigration activists, reinforcing her previous positions and saying she would protect Obama's executive actions and "go even further." She also described her immigration position as separate from "everyone on the Republican side."

"Not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship," Clinton said. "Not one. When they talk about legal status, that’s code for second-class status."

Clinton made her pitch at a predominantly Latino high school in Nevada, a state where Hispanic voters played a central role in re-electing Senator Harry Reid in 2010, and helped deliver victories for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

"Hillary Clinton is being shrewd by coming out early on this issue," said Daniel Garza, executive director of The LIBRE Initiative, a conservative, Koch-backed nonprofit that focuses on Hispanic outreach.

To capture the White House in 2016, the Republican nominee needs to win "somewhere in the mid-forties or better" among Hispanic voters, GOP pollster Whit Ayres told reporters in Washington last month. In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won 27 percent. That was down from John McCain's 31 percent in 2008. 

Also on Bloomberg Politics: Where Do the Presidential Candidates Stand on Immigration?

And Latinos are only expanding their voting power. The Pew Hispanic Center projects that Hispanics will account for 40 percent of the growth of the electorate by 2030. The group estimates 40 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote by then, up from 23.7 million now.

"We need to nominate a candidate that sends a message that we want Hispanic-Americans in the center-right coalition," Ayers, the pollster for Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

Among Republican presidential contenders, Bush has been making the most direct appeal to Hispanic voters. He held a pair of public events in Puerto Rico earlier this month, spoke to a Hispanic evangelicals in Houston, and invited reporters to a lunch with Zeus Rodriguez, the president of Hispanics for School Choice. Sharing a stage last week with National Review editor Rich Lowry, Bush told the head of the conservative magazine that, "You're wrong on immigration."

Bush is also easing his wife Columba, a Mexican-American, on to the campaign trail by having her co-host a fundraiser this month. And he released a "Cinco de Mayo" message in Spanish on Tuesday.

"The top issues for Hispanic voters are economy, education and health care," Garza said in an interview. "Immigration is an issue Latinos use to make a judgement on the candidate's character. A political narrative is a reflection of your heart, and how you approach this community—what that narrative is—is critical."

Still, Clinton's support for immigration reform doesn't guarantee her any votes, Garza said. As Obama has been unable to deliver immigration reform, Hispanic voters will be looking for examples of leadership from candidates, instead of promises. Garza said that would measure could help other Republicans, such as Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida who co-authored a bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013, but has since backed away from it. 

"The Hispanic vote has grown bigger and more concentrated in key electoral swing states," said Fernand Amandi, a pollster at Miami-based Bendixen & Amandi, which worked for Obama in the 2012 elections. "It's going to be critically important." 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the date of Hillary Clinton's event in Nevada.

—Jennifer Epstein and Ali Elkin contributed to this report.

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