Republican leaders balance politics and principle on immigration reform

Senior Republicans say the party is struggling to thread the needle on immigration reform, an issue emerging as the next big item on the political agenda once the ongoing deficit talks reach their conclusion.

On the one hand, GOP leaders recognize the party needs a new approach. Mitt Romney performed dismally with Latino voters in November’s general election. 

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On the other hand, internal skeptics fear that a GOP rush to embrace a more liberal approach to immigration would risk sundering the conservative movement without paying any electoral dividends. 

These dilemmas are not entirely new. President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pushed immigration reform in the middle of the last decade. 

They had no success, were subjected to considerable criticism from other conservatives and the issue almost capsized the latter’s run for the 2008 presidential nomination.

The difference this time might be that the party is coming off a sizable election loss in which its unpopularity among Hispanics was a key factor. 

Romney received the support of only 27 percent of Latino voters, according to exit polls — a stark contrast to the 44 percent Bush racked up in 2004.

But some influential voices in the party worry that a more centrist line on immigration reform is being pushed too hastily. They also face a tactical decision — whether to support broad reforms or back a more piecemeal approach to the issue. 

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who will replace Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) in the next Congress, said that while “there is a recognition” that the immigration issue had hurt the GOP with Hispanics, he believed “some might overplay it.”

He added that there was a danger in “thinking [that] if we do immigration reform, we all of a sudden get 44 percent, like Bush. That’s not the case.”

Even so, however, Flake acknowledged that the party’s current position was simply doing it too much damage, especially when the dangers were exacerbated by an inflammatory tone.

“Our policy on immigration, or the voices that come from our party, certainly have alienated some in the Hispanic community, but it also alienates others,” he said. “It’s not just that it’s turned off Hispanics -— and it has — but more broadly it’s turned off a lot of people.”

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the chairman of the House Policy Committee, argued that “a vast number of Republicans are supportive of immigration reform.” He also asserted, as do many conservatives, that a significant proportion of the Latino population is simpatico with the GOP’s worldview on economic and social issues.

Lankford emphasized that as Republicans ponder whether to modulate their position on immigration reform, “the first consideration can’t be the political benefit.” 

Yet he fears Republicans who supported any kind of sweeping reform would come under attack from their right flank while most of the benefit could accrue to President Obama.

“Whoever is president, they sign it and they get credit for it,” he said. “Some say that if Republicans push immigration reform here, we’ll get credit for it. That’s not true. The president will get credit for it.” 

The answer, many Republicans and strategists believe, could lie in part with a shift toward supporting something akin to an expansive DREAM Act, without going so far as any deal involving a broader amnesty.

Republican strategist Hogan Gidley, who worked closely with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and served as the communications director for former Sen. Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential bid, told The Hill that Republicans need to convince Latinos they are receptive to the challenges the community faces.

“It doesn’t mean we open our borders. It doesn’t mean that we grant amnesty. But Huckabee used to make that point that the children were here through no fault of their own. Why deny them a college education?”

Gidley cautioned that a broader reform package could be a big political loser for Republicans. He cited the amnesty to which President Ronald Reagan agreed in the 1980s, and added “he still never got their votes.”

The lesson to be drawn, he added, was that “we shouldn’t run to change our principles or sell out our convictions for votes, because there is no guarantee that you will get the votes. Then you’re left without your principles and without political support.”

Some Republicans believe that progress could be made simply by adopting a less hostile tone when addressing issues like immigration. 

Such an approach, according to pollster Whit Ayres, could help win over those Hispanics who, ethnicity aside, fit the demographic profile of Republican supporters neatly.

“A great deal of what needs to change is adopting an attitude that says, ‘We want Hispanics who believe in limited government and lower taxes and entrepreneurial opportunity as part of our coalition,’ ” he said.

Ayres’ company, North Star Opinion Research, last week released a poll from four battleground states — Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico — that underlined this point.

In each of those four states, the poll found many Hispanics who considered themselves conservative did not vote for Romney in November. 

In the three states other than Florida, the margin was striking. In Nevada, 40 percent of Hispanics declared themselves conservative but only 25 percent said they voted for Romney. In New Mexico, the figures were 47 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

“If we simply got the portion of Hispanic voters who consider themselves conservative, we would be back in the hunt,” Ayres said.

For Republicans, the current crisis has been a long time coming. 

Strategist Ed Rollins told The Hill he remembered having a conversation in 1982 with legendary consultant Lee Atwater about how to boost the GOP’s standing with blacks and Latino.

Rollins added that the damage that has been done in the interim could not be undone overnight. He counseled the party to think in terms of five-year or 10-year plans that involved selecting more Hispanic candidates among other things.

But a more generous approach to immigration reform, he insisted, had to be part of the picture.

“It might be a piecemeal thing where you begin with the DREAM Act and move beyond it,” he said. “Republicans, realistically, can’t be obstructionist.”