By Alexander Bolton - 04/09/13 09:00 AM EDT
Conservatives in South Carolina and Iowa are warning Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that he is on the verge of stepping into an immigration trap.
Activists in two early primary states say that if the senator strikes a flawed reform deal this week it could hurt his White House chances in 2016.
“It remains a very divisive issue among the folks that support us,” said Oran Smith, director of the Palmetto Family Council, based in Columbia, S.C.
“You still have a very passionate group of conservatives and evangelicals who are uncomfortable with any kind of change or anything that can be considered reform.”
Rubio has taken a leading role in trying to craft a bipartisan immigration reform deal in the Senate’s Gang of Eight. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has called Rubio a “game changer” in the debate.
Activists in South Carolina and Iowa acknowledge the political landscape has shifted since 2008, when immigration dominated the debate between presidential candidates.
Republican strategists in Washington have conducted focus groups in Iowa and South Carolina showing conservative voters are open-minded about an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
But the key to winning their approval is to convince them the border will be sealed before 11 million illegal immigrants get on a path to citizenship.
Smith said Rubio must be careful not to be seen as embracing a deal to enhance his political reputation in Washington.
“In a South Carolina Republican presidential primary, Marco Rubio does not hurt himself in any way by being perceived as one of the holdouts,” he said. “If he was perceived as someone who was deal-oriented versus principle-oriented, while that may etch you in the annals of history, that doesn’t really help you politically amongst the typical South Carolina voter.”
John Steinberger, a member of the 9/12 Tea Party chapter in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., said many conservative voters oppose overhauling the nation’s immigration laws all at once. They prefer a piecemeal approach that first addresses border security.
“The conservatives that I talk to want to see border security first and not have a comprehensive immigration reform bill,” he said.
Rubio initially favored passing immigration reform in steps. But he eventually opted for the comprehensive approach pushed by Senate Democratic leaders, who argued it could not be divided up.
Steinberger said he and other Tea Party voters in South Carolina would be skeptical of claims by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that the border is secure.
“It will probably take years to really secure the border. It’s not an easy task,” he said.
He said it would be “a negative” if Rubio signed off on any deal and illegal immigrants continued to flow across the border.
Ann Trimble-Ray, the former chairwoman of the Sac County GOP central committee in western Iowa, said Rubio has not yet ingratiated himself with conservative voters in her home state.
“The fact that Sen. Rubio has said immigration reform is going to come through me is a rather aggressive stance on his part. He’s doing so, I hope, for all the right reasons,” Trimble-Ray said. “I don’t think it’s winning him extra favors in Iowa yet.”
Trimble-Ray says there is a dichotomy among conservative voters in Iowa.
“There is an overwhelming respect for the rule of law here and the immigration laws are being ignored,” she said.
But Iowa’s farm economy also depends on immigrant labor, and many farmers want to ensure access to workers.
She also noted that the unemployment rate is relatively low in Iowa — it registered at 5 percent in February — and voters may be less concerned about the impact of immigration reform on the job market than in states with high unemployment rates.
Chip Saltsman, a Republican strategist who helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) win the Iowa caucuses in 2008, said immigration reform is a gamble for Rubio.
Saltsman said it will be very difficult to completely secure the southern border and warned Rubio’s legacy on immigration reform could hinge on whether any law he helps pass is seen by conservatives as effectively staunching illegal immigration.
“If we don’t secure the borders, then it’s a problem again in five years or 10 years,” he said.
“If this gets passed, it’s going to be because of Marco Rubio. He’s going to put his name on it and it gives a whole lot of cover to conservatives in both chambers,” he said. “It will hurt him if it ends up in a black hole three years from now.
“On the flip side, it could be a big win for him, too. It’s high-stakes poker,” he said.
Republican candidates have won important primary states and even the party’s presidential nomination in the recent past after espousing comprehensive immigration reform.
Newt Gingrich won the 2012 South Carolina primary after arguing that it was unrealistic to expect the government to deport 11 million illegal immigrants.
Resurgent Republic, a GOP-affiliated public opinion research group, released a report at the end of March that found conservative voters in South Carolina and Iowa are willing to consider comprehensive immigration reform under certain conditions.
The research showed conservatives strongly oppose illegal immigration but do not believe the nation’s 11 million illegal residents should be deported.
Conservatives also view a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants as acceptable, if it is an earned process that does not give them priority ahead of people who are waiting in line to apply legally.
But conservatives in the focus groups insisted the border must be secured before offering legal status and paths to citizenship to people who broke the law.
“Universally, all participants agree that stronger border enforcement is absolutely necessary before moving forward with any plan for legal residency or earned citizenship,” Resurgent Republic stated in a summary of its findings.
The verdict on whether any immigration reform signed into law by President Obama accomplishes that goal will have major implications for Rubio’s White House aspirations.
Ed Gillespie, a Republican political strategist who serves on the board of directors of Resurgent Republic, said conservative voters grow more receptive toward immigration reform when they learn more about it.
He said the key is to make sure there is a adequate and transparent debate in Congress. If Democratic leaders try to rush through legislation, it will prompt a backlash from conservatives.
“The more information about immigration reform [conservative voters] get, the more likely they are to be supportive of it,” Gillespie said.
“Everybody will be suspicious if they feel like it has been jammed through. It’s a debate that benefits from more information.”