While Ted Cruz’s comments on immigration reform may not exactly ring true to they do bring up a key question. Why is the GOP bringing up immigration reform now? Afterall, generic ballot polls and individual Senate polls from across the country show the GOP has virtually all the momentum heading into 2014. Republicans would seem to be safer if they simply hammered Democrats on the poor economy, tied them to a liberal President and showed the chaos of Obamacare.
Sean Trende, who I often cite on this blog, posits several theories. Without recounting every one I do think two stand out and may mirror GOP thoughts on the issue; its a PR push and the GOP is afraid of winning. More specifically the GOP is trying to get ahead of the issue in preparation for action in late 2014 or 2015 and the GOP establishment is afraid of winning in a landslide because of the future headaches it might cause.
Consider where the GOP has been on immigration since 2011 when they first held the House. The GOP House Caucus has been very clear they want enforcement first provisions, no amnesty and illegals to pay taxes and fees. We can argue the politics of this but the result has been GOP opposition to the DREAM Act that passed the Senate in 2011 and opposition to the massive Senate Immigration Reform Bill in 2013. John Boehner knew he would never get his Caucus to support the Senate version and never acted on it. However it has been clear for quite some time the House GOP could get behind several bills that deal with specific aspects of reform one at a time.
But getting agreement in the Caucus on this issue, even in small bills, is not easy. Many members will feel pressure from their constituents to vote no simply because they assume any reform is amnesty. Furthermore, if bills are brought up in 2014 members may worry about a primary challenge hitting on this issue. This means that GOP movement on reform is not just PR for the public but also for its Congressional members convincing them of the soundness of moving on the issue sooner or later. Of course the party would not complain if it won them votes among Hispanics in 2014 or 2016 either.
Trende suggests that GOP leadership is wary of a landslide and there seems to be a kernel of truth in this line of thought. Consider that leaders like McConnell and Boehner have often been painted into corners by Tea Party Senators and House members. Many of these members were elected in the wave election of 2010. So perhaps they do not want to deal with the likes of a Ken Buck in Colorado in the 2015-2016 session. They have already struggled with the Rand Paul’s and Ted Cruz’s of the world. If 2014 turns out to be a wave election it is certainty plausible that seats like Colorado and Iowa could fall to the GOP, albeit unlikely. GOP leaders discussion of reform might dampen their base’s support in these states for the party’s nominee. Meanwhile their top-tier, more establishment candidates in red or blue leaning states would likely still win or lose on the merits of their pitches.
Both these ideas are certainly plausible. But I would suggest a third motive. The GOP is moving in preparation for 2016. While the party has shown little interest in backing down from its 2012 campaign platform the party also does realize it needs to win more minority voters to succeed in 2016. Most of the top contenders for the nomination recognize this. Consider that Rand Paul has spoken at several all black colleges, Chris Christie in his reelection campaign specifically targeted winning the Hispanic vote and Marco Rubio has supported immigration reform. Meanwhile the RNC has spent lavishly to target minority voters in states across the country. The idea seems to be that the GOP should not shift its policy platform but the way they talk about it.
GOP movement on the issue this early, albeit with few results likely, may suggest to minorities the party is ready to talk about the issue without eating alive its own (minus Ted Cruz of course). It is likely the GOP will wait until 2015 to put forward specific bills however. By 2015 the party will know how strong its majority remains in the House and the Senate will either be under their control or more narrowly tilted partisanly. This means a bill or bills sent to President’s desk would be more to the liking of conservative tastes. If nothing gets done by 2016, something unlikely to happen in my mind, the GOP nominees can discuss the issue and make inroads in the Hispanic community on the issue much as GW Bush did in 2004.