Family Feud

Republican Strategists Look Nervously Upon Cruz-Rubio Feud Over Immigration

A battle has broken out between the two rising candidates.

Will the GOP Race Come Down to Rubio vs. Cruz?

Two days after taking veiled jabs at his rival, Senator Ted Cruz took off the gloves and called out Senator Marco Rubio by name Thursday for his role in helping to author a 2013 immigration bill that would have provided immigrants in the U.S. illegally with a potential path to citizenship.

Cruz's comments, on a program with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, set off a war of words between the two senators, both children of immigrants, with each arguing the other was soft on illegal immigration. And that is raising concerns among some party strategists that the high-profile fight could further alienate Latino and Asian-American voters, wrecking the party's chances in a general election where 30 percent of the electorate is projected to be non-white.

“This is disaster on all kinds of different levels,” said John Feehery, a veteran Republican strategist and lobbyist. “I've always been concerned that if we don't get immigration right we have no chance to win this. And right now it doesn't look like we are getting it right or we're going to get it right.”

“Talk is cheap. You know where someone is based on their actions,” Cruz told Ingraham. In South Carolina, Rubio fired back that his Texas rival's past positions weren't “dramatically different” than his, citing amendments Cruz proposed to the 2013 bill to keep the work permits for undocumented people (while stripping out the citizenship component) and to increase H-1B work visas for highly-skilled foreign workers.

The showdown comes as Rubio and Cruz rise in the polls while picking up endorsements and donors, fueling predictions that the fight for the Republican nomination could come down to a duel between the two young Cuban-American senators. Republican strategists are nervous that a race to the right on immigration—already a vulnerable issue for the party with Latino and Asian-American voters—could sink them in the general election.

Katie Packer Gage, the deputy campaign manager for 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who lost an election in which President Barack Obama was overwhelmingly supported by Hispanic voters, urged Cruz and other Republicans not to alienate more Hispanic voters in 2016.  

“I have a huge concern. If you look at where Donald Trump is with Hispanic voters, he literally is in the sewer,” said Gage, referring to the GOP front-runner, who has promised to deport an estimated 11 million people now living illegally in the U.S. “For now I don't think Hispanic voters necessarily equate that with the party.” But Gage said that perception could readily change given Trump's long tenure as the front-runner, combined with “candidates like Ted Cruz trying to drive our party further to the right” on the immigration issue. “It's a problem,” she said. 

Even so, the race appears to be on. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a GOP presidential candidate who is barely registering in the polls, argued that Cruz's position is “not markedly different than Senator Rubio's position” and that neither is sufficiently conservative when it comes to legal or illegal immigration.

“I find it somewhat amusing the two of them are fighting over how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin,” Santorum said in an interview. “I know Trump talks about it,” he added, “but I'm the only one that's been consistent.” Santorum not only would deport immigrants in the U.S. illegally, but would push to reduce legal immigration to protect American workers, he said.

Steve Schmidt, the senior campaign strategist for John McCain, the Republicans' 2008 presidential nominee, said the party need to raise its share of the Hispanic vote by double-digits from the 27 percent Romney won. “Democrats have many many demographic advantages” in the electoral college, Schmidt said. “It's very difficult to see how Republicans put the math together without getting 40 percent of the Latino votes.”

Battle Lines

On Ingraham's show, Cruz argued that he has consistently taken the position that borders must be secured before any other changes in immigration law can be considered, contrasting that with Rubio's position. “The Gang of Eight, they fought tooth and nail to try to jam this amnesty down the American people's throat,” Cruz said, referring to a bipartisan group of senators, including Rubio, who drafted the 2013 bill.

Rubio, who changed his tune after the House rejected the bill and now wants border security mechanisms in place before debating legalization, pushed back after a campaign stop in South Carolina. He did so by highlighting Cruz's own detours from conservative orthodoxy on immigration.

“Ted is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally,” the Floridian told reporters. “In fact, when the Senate bill was proposed he proposed legalizing people that were here illegally—he proposed giving them work permits. ... He's supported a massive expansion of the H-1B program—a 500 percent increase.” The H-1B program is controversial because some more highly paid workers believe it allows employers to shut Americans out of jobs.

Cruz had proposed an amendment to strip the citizenship component for people in the country illegally but keep the work permits.

Rubio's contention is “simply false,” said Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier. She said Cruz's amendment wasn't an indication that he supported legal status, but rather a strategic effort to make the bill less bad by stripping out the path to citizenship. “Senator Cruz was doing his job as a senator to improve a fundamentally flawed bill, and two, to expose the bill for what it was, which was amnesty,” she said. As conservatives elevate their attacks on the H-1B program, Frazier qualified Cruz's position on visas for highly skilled foreign workers, saying that it “needs to be fixed to stop the abuse and put American jobs first before any conversations are had about expanding the program.”

It is not uncommon for senators to propose amendments to alter legislation that they oppose. The Cruz amendments failed and the senator ultimately voted against the bill. The Texas senator has said he won't discuss what to do about the millions of people in the U.S. illegally until the border is secure.

While Rubio avoided immigration during this week's presidential debate, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich directly attacked Trump's plan to deport people and to build a wall along the border with Mexico. Kasich called it “a silly argument. It is not an adult argument. It makes no sense.” Bush, who supports immigration reform that includes a path to legal status but not citizenship, made a moral case against mass deportation.

“Twelve million illegal immigrants, to send them back, 500,000 a month, is just not possible. And it’s not embracing American values. And it would tear communities apart,” Bush said. He also made note of the potential electoral consequences for the Republican Party. “And even having this conversation sends a powerful signal—they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this.”

Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon confirmed Bush's hunch.

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