Why The GOP Can’t Afford To Kill The Immigration Bill

Immigration reform passed the Senate on Thursday, with 14 Republicans voting in favor. Despite this bipartisan support in the Senate, the bill could easily die in the more polarized House or thereafter in the conference process. If it does, the cause of death will be a lack of Republican support. That will reinforce the anti-immigrant image of today’s GOP, as well as its generally obstructionist public image — both of which could have serious electoral consequences for a party that’s already on the demographic ropes.

A lively debate is breaking out amongst conservatives about how to handle this challenge. Karl Rove has just published a piece in the Wall Street Journal where he comes down squarely on the pro-immigration reform camp’s side:

If the GOP leaves nonwhite voters to the Democrats, than its margins in safe congressional districts and red states will dwindle — not overnight, but over years and decades.

For example, the Hispanic population in Georgia’s Gwinnett County increased by 153% from 2000 to 2010 while the GOP’s presidential vote in the county dropped to 54% in 2012 from 63.7% in 2000. In Henry County, south of Atlanta, the Hispanic population increased by 339% over the same decade. The GOP’s presidential vote dropped to 51.2% in 2012 from 66.4% in 2000. Republicans ignore changes like these at their peril.

Many conservatives counter that better turnout and support among whites can compensate for losses among Hispanics. Rove takes on that argument directly:

To have prevailed over Mr. Obama in the electoral count, Mr. Romney would have had to carry 62.54% of white voters. That’s a tall order, given that Ronald Reagan received 63% of the white vote in his 1984 victory, according to the Congressional Quarterly’s analysis of major exit polls. It’s unreasonable to expect Republicans to routinely pull numbers that last occurred in a 49-state sweep.

Of course, that’s not to say that it is not technically possible for the Republicans to get increased levels of white support and/or turnout, nor that it’d be impossible to pair that with lower levels of black turnout and/or support for Democrats even as the minority vote continues to grow. Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has outlined all these possibilities in considerable detail (in a later post, I’ll take a more in-depth look at some of Trende’s scenarios).


But just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean it’s your best option. Far from it: the fact of the matter is immigration reform is highly likely to happen eventually and is already quite popular among the American public. In a recent Gallup poll, 87 percent of Americans said that, if they could vote on issues on Election Day, they would vote for a law that sounds a lot like the Senate immigration bill. In a recent Pew poll, 71 percent said they supported a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, including 66 percent of whites and 69 percent of independents.

Do Republicans really want to put themselves on the wrong side once again of overwhelming public sentiment, just as they did on background checks for gun purchases? It could wreak havoc on their image and not just among Hispanics — they’ll also be looking less attractive to young whites, moderate whites, college-educated whites (particularly women), and basically anyone outside of their hard core of support. That would make their task of jacking up their support among whites to stratospheric levels kind of difficult. In other words, killing immigration reform could wind up being a lose-lose proposition. The choice is theirs.